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Liquor Laws

Local liquor license holders speak out again enforcement In accepting the new liquor laws, Whistler license holders gave a little to get a little – and then, they say, they got stiffed There are many positive things to say about the new terms an

Local liquor license holders speak out again enforcement

In accepting the new liquor laws, Whistler license holders gave a little to get a little – and then, they say, they got stiffed

There are many positive things to say about the new terms and conditions that apply to B.C. liquor license holders, a new set of regulations to modernize and streamline the old systems (which were, by all descriptions, a dog’s breakfast). So how come nobody is saying those positive things?

For the past few weeks the Whistler rumour mill has been spinning stories of a militant RCMP crackdown on bars and restaurants, and an over-enthusiastic liquor license inspector who doesn’t live here, and who issues tickets at the drop of a hat.

Like every good rumour, there’s an element of truth. Tensions are very real – as evidenced by the letters to the editor we’ve been receiving and the strong show of support for Food and Beverage Association president Dale Schweighardt’s presentation to council on Jan. 29 – and have reached the boiling point.

"Everybody (license holders) is deeply concerned right now," says Schweighardt, who is also the manager of Buffalo Bill’s. "It’s a situation that’s potentially damaging to the industry and the resort.

"How is it damaging? When guests go away with a negative impression. I have guests right now who are talking about their experience with the police and liquor inspector rather than their experience on the mountain."

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the Surich Liquor Policy Review, an independent analysis of the liquor industry in B.C. that included hundreds of recommendations on how to modernize, clarify and streamline the dated mishmash of provincial liquor laws regulations. The provincial government adopted the bulk of the recommendations on June 3, 1999, and started rolling out the policy changes last fall with the opening of some government liquor stores on Sunday.

That experiment was a disaster. Independent beer and wine store owners in Whistler lost tens of thousands of dollars in the first few months of Sunday openings, claiming that the liquor branch had been negligent in consulting with independent retailers. The government agreed and in December they voluntarily closed one of two government liquor stores in the village.

The problem wasn’t in the recommendation but with the implementation – Consultant Jo Surich specifically stated that no liquor stores should be opened on Sunday without consulting beer and wine store owners, addressing their needs, and then getting a clear go-ahead from the local government. The liquor branch didn’t do any of these things effectively, and were called on it by the provincial cabinet.

It seems that the same thing has occurred with the implementation of the new liquor license guidelines on Jan. 15, titled: "A Guide for Liquor Licensees in British Columbia: Terms and Conditions of a Liquor License."

On the positive side, bars and restaurants would see closing times extended and seating capacities increased to reflect what the fire code allows. The new laws would also permit restaurants to set aside a portion of their seats where customers could be served alcohol without food.

On a slightly less positive side, bar and restaurant owners would accept increased enforcement through the Compliance Enforcement Program. At the time, most bar and restaurant owners truly wanted an enforcement program with set penalties that would be applied equally, effectively, and in a timely way, thereby putting all establishments on a level playing field.

The problem is that the slightly less positive side of the new guidelines were introduced before the positive side could be implemented. And without the positives, the less positive guidelines seem almost a negative.

"The situation is that the original process was supposed to see the enforcement coincide with the increased capacity, and that hasn’t taken place. (The liquor branch) in Victoria has dropped the ball on that," says Schweighardt, who acknowledges that Buffalo Bill’s has received a ticket for overcrowding.

"What we’re expecting now, although tickets have been issued, is that Victoria will not address those tickets until after the capacity issue has been dealt with. The penalties are severe, and nobody wants to see doors closed as a result of this."

Bars and restaurants were asked to submit they’re applications for capacity increases back in November. Before the enforcement kicked in, the applications should have been reviewed by the province, passed on to the municipal government who would do their own review, and passed back to back to the government for a final review. Instead, something or someone happened to those applications, and as a result the municipality only received them last week – two weeks after the enforcement laws were implemented, and dozens of tickets, or liquor slips, were handed out to license holders.

While addressing council, Schweighardt said that the liquor inspector has been overzealous in his job, and that the RCMP may have been relying too much on the liquor inspector, mayor and municipal administrator for direction. He said the police presence is intimidating to customers, and complained that the RCMP have been asking patio customers at establishments with restaurant licences to see their receipts, to ensure that they ordered food with their drinks.

"I think the RCMP can approach anyone in a licensed facility, but it isn’t appropriate," says Schweighardt.

"The way this came about has put us all in an awkward spot, and although the rest of B.C. is in the same awkward spot it seems that enforcement has only really been pursued up here."

The Food and Beverage Association asked council to deal with the applications to increase capacities immediately. Schweighardt also suggested that the issue of serving restaurant patrons without food should also be dealt with, and that patio capacities should not be subtracted from inside capacities because patios do not represent a fire safety issue.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly acknowledged that it was a difficult situation, but denied that he or anyone in council gave the RCMP any directions. Council is expecting a report from municipal staff.

For their part, the RCMP say they have only been enforcing the laws that are on the books and attempting to maintain order in the village.

"When I arrived here the municipal administrator asked me to maintain a high profile in town," says Staff Sergeant Hilton Haider. "We have an ongoing problem with drunkenness and violence in the village. I understand there is a gap in the regulations, but we can’t ignore violations in the village."

Police spend the majority of their time on weekends handling alcohol-related cases, including fights, vandalism, mischief, creating a disturbance, and public drunkenness. This weekend alone the RCMP arrested two drivers for being two to three times over the legal limit – both were leaving licensed establishments.

Haider says he has spoken to his staff about approaching customers for receipts and assured the Food and Beverage Association that it wouldn’t happen anymore. "There are other ways to determine if food is sold with drinks."

RCMP foot patrols around the village and into local establishments will continue to be a part of the RCMP’s mandate, says community policing officer Ray Bernoties. "Should someone flagrantly break the rules, we will have to write them a slip. Currently it’s not that hard to find flagrant violations."

Last weekend the RCMP handed out four liquor slips for a variety of offences, including serving a minor, allowing a customer to consume alcohol half an hour after closing, a customer removing alcohol from the premises, and for allowing an obviously intoxicated customer to remain on the premises.

"We’re not trying to be heavy-handed, we’re just trying to keep things under control. Public safety is our main concern," Bernoties said.

The Food and Beverage Association also received word from the provincial liquor branch that the liquor inspector would receive clearer instructions for the future. "Victoria has told us that they’re going to give him more direction, they’re going to talk to him a little more and let him know what they want him to do," Schweighardt said.

"We’re looking at this situation in a positive light as this point. We think that we’ve sent a clear message to council and that council is listening, and we’re hoping we can see some positive things can happen.

"The meeting of license holders was very well attended, as was our presentation to council. It’s not just the bars, the restaurants are attending as well, as concerned business people who realize that this goes beyond affecting apres ski bars – it will eventually affect T-shirt shops and hotel rooms."

Although nobody can be certain how long the issue will be drawn out, Schweighardt is optimistic that their concerns will be addressed in the next few weeks.

However the situation is addressed, it’s clear that things will never go back to normal – whatever that was.