New rules: Jo Surich defends proposed changes to liquor regulations
Increased accessibility of liquor and resulting social costs biggest issues for local governments
By Bob Barnett
Jo Surich is no James Bond, but the changes he’s recommended to B.C.’s liquor laws have shaken — not stirred — many across the province.
Surich submitted his recommendations to cabinet in January, and cabinet supported the general principles. The recommendations were made public the following month. Since then the consultant has begun touring the province, listening to municipalities, public interest groups, alcohol counsellors and others with concerns about the proposed changes. Tuesday he was in Whistler.
"Today’s regulatory system is largely focused on defending economic turf," Surich said of the current system which has different licences for hotels, for cabarets, for neighbourhood pubs, for restaurants and every other type of establishment which serves alcohol.
"We want to control over serving, over crowding and service to minors, but our current system doesn’t work well. It’s not enforceable. It ties the hands of the enforcers," Surich said.
Enforcement issues are a key part of his report, Surich added. The distinction between bars and restaurants is today unenforceable, he said, "so don’t ask the enforcers to do that job."
"We’re creating something that makes it easier for liquor inspectors to enforce the rules. This doesn’t change the world for consumers," Surich said.
Whether he’s gone too far or whether some of his recommendations have been misinterpreted, Surich’s report has generated considerable response. The Union of B.C. Municipalities has blasted Surich for leaving local governments out of the loop and making recommendations that will download increased social costs on municipalities, by making alcohol more readily available. The UBCM has been particularly vocal on what it saw as a recommendation to allow minors into bars until 9 p.m., if accompanied by an adult.
Surich says there is no intention to allow minors into bars and he doesn’t know where the UBCM got that idea.
But most people interpret the proposed regulations as increasing the availability of alcohol, which will lead to increased social costs. Peter Gordon, of Squamish’s Committee for a Responsible Community, told Surich Tuesday, "We believe we have a very serious problem with alcohol. If we were more responsible as a community and a people with alcohol then we wouldn’t have any problem with your proposals. But as they are, they’re going to make the situation worse."
Gordon called on Surich to take his report one step further, to look at the social costs of alcohol and make recommendations on alcohol counselling and education programs.
On Monday evening, Whistler council endorsed a position paper which responded to each of Surich’s recommendations, either supporting, conditionally supporting, opposing or requiring more information. The response was drafted with input from some members of the municipality’s new liquor licence advisory committee, but is the municipality’s position and not necessarily the committee’s position.
Among Surich’s recommendations which are supported or conditionally supported by the Resort Municipality of Whistler are:
o reducing the number of licences to two (one for places that primarily serve food and the other for establishments that primarily serve alcohol)
o eliminating restrictions on entertainment in restaurants (other than adult entertainment)
o a greater role for local governments in licensing establishments and their hours of operation
Surich has also recommended some provincial liquor stores be allowed to open on Sundays and all provincial liquor stores accept credit cards, which Whistler has supported on the condition that steps be taken to offset the impact on existing cold beer and wine stores.
Recommendations Whistler and many others have opposed include:
o that existing licensees be allowed to increase their capacity to the lesser of the building occupancy limit or the current liquor capacity plus 50 per cent
o that new licensees be required to build to their liquor capacity, so that building capacities and licensed capacities are identical
o that restaurants be allowed to designate up to 10 per cent of their seats, or a maximum of 20 seats, as "drinking tables" where patrons would not be required to order a meal with their drinks
Whistler currently has 28,000 licensed seats (23,000 "restaurant" seats, which include ball rooms and convention facilities, and 5,000 seats in bars, pubs and clubs) — far more per capita than any other town in the province, and many consider the town "over licensed."
Surich himself didn’t believe Whistler had so many licensed seats, until he checked the figures with the liquor board. He called Whistler "unique."
Municipal planner Mike Kirkegaard said it’s difficult to calculate how many more seats would be created in Whistler if existing establishments were allowed to increase their licensed capacity to their building occupancy limit because in many cases no absolute occupancy limit numbers exist. In other cases the numbers would be a matter of interpretation. However, if the nightclubs and bars were allowed to increase their capacities by 50 per cent, it would have a "significant impact."
What is generally understood, however, is that many clubs and bars currently operate beyond their licensed capacity during busy times.
One of the costs to the municipality of 28,000 licensed seats was illustrated by the local RCMP detachment, which currently spends approximately half of its $2 million annual operating budget on liquor-related issues. Increasing the number of licensed seats would presumably add to RCMP costs.
The proposal to allow establishments to increase their capacities, and the apparently "pending" status of all of Surich’s recommendations, has already indirectly hamstrung improvements to one local operation. Tapley’s Neighbourhood Pub has applied for a minor development permit to renovate its patio, including adding another 25 square metres to the gross floor area. Council Monday rejected the application because no analysis had been done with regard to the patio renovation and Surich’s recommendation to increase capacities. Council also asked that the renovation be reviewed by the Advisory Design Panel.
Among food and beverage industry people, support for Surich’s recommendations are divided. Restaurateurs generally favour the recommendations, while hotel, pub and night club operators generally endorse the current system.
And some in the food and beverage industry wonder whether Surich’s recommendations are already a done deal. They were developed and presented to cabinet after consultations with key industry stakeholders. Only after cabinet has accepted the recommendations in principle is Surich now looking for municipal and public input.
For his part, Surich says he will be presenting a final report to Victoria and it will make take into account the feedback he is receiving from local governments and the public, including some recommendations on alcohol counselling and education, although that was not really part of his mandate.
Surich’s final report will go to the province in the next few weeks. He expects a two-three year phase-in period for the new regulations.