Champaign denies change in liquor code

By Eric Chima

The Champaign City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday against a proposal that would have amended the liquor code to punish bars caught with underage drinkers.

Under current Champaign law, a bar is only responsible if it is caught selling the alcohol to a minor. The revised liquor code would have given an establishment a violation if police found that over 3 percent of the bar’s legal occupancy were underage drinkers, even if they did not buy the alcohol themselves.

Repeated violations over a two-year period would have brought escalating sanctions against the bar, including fines, suspensions and eventually revocation of its liquor license.

Dave Chang, owner of The White Horse Inn on campus, said the 3 percent threshold was unfair to smaller businesses where it would take very few underage drinkers to cause a violation, compared to nearly 20 at a larger bar.

“It’s very hard to police when your threshold is four people,” Chang said.

Kam’s owner Eric Meijer said it would force a 21-year-old bar entry age throughout campus in less than a year and eventually put 17 local bars out of business.

According to a report by city manager Steven Carter, bars throughout the city fail compliance tests at the point of sale less than 10 percent of the time. Over 90 percent of campus bars, though, are caught with underage drinkers somewhere on the premises.

These figures prompted an inquiry from the Illinois state police, who threatened to move in if the city did not take steps to further police its bars, Mayor Gerald Schweighart said.

The City Council rejected the proposal as an unfair solution that would drive underage drinkers to more dangerous venues. Tom Bruno, councilman at large, said the city’s good motives could have negative results.

“We set out to eradicate underage drinking at any cost … and then we do it at about the safest place where it can take place,” Bruno said. “We may unintentionally drive 19- and 20-year-olds to places where they might get raped, die in a fire or fall off a balcony.”

Under current laws, no bar was cited for more than four violations in the two-year period from April 2003 through March 2005. Under the proposed code, two establishments would have had five violations, one would have six, and one would have seven, which carries a 30-day suspension or acceptance of a minimum 21-year-old entry age for two years.

District 5 Councilman Ken Pirok said the threshold levels were too low and just a way to force a 21-year-old entry age.

“I have a big problem not letting legal adults into a public place,” Pirok said. “All we’re going to do is push the problem elsewhere.”