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Bemidji City Council tries to stall 2 a.m. bar implementation, fails on 3-3 tie

The Bemidji City Council came within one vote Monday night of reconsidering its position on bar closing times.

Councilors voted on two potential actions: putting in place a moratorium on applications from city bars seeking a 2 a.m. closing time, and asking city staff to prepare for their next meeting an ordinance that would begin the process to return the city to a 1 a.m. bar closing time.

Both considerations, in one motion, failed on a 3-3 tie. Voting in favor were Mayor Dave Larson and Councilors Rita Albrecht and Roger Hellquist. Opposed were Councilors Ron Johnson, Jim Thompson and Kevin Waldhausen. Councilor Greg Negard was absent.

The issue stems from the council's 4-3 vote in December to allow city bars the option of serving alcohol one hour later, until 2 a.m. Since that time, three new members have begun serving on the council.

Beltrami County, just prior to the city's December vote, began its own ordinance process - which is still underway - to prohibit the sale of alcohol at county bars after 1 a.m.

While the bar closing time issue was not on the council's agenda, Mayor Dave Larson asked that it be added as a follow-up to last week's joint work session between the council and county board.

City bars have the ability on Jan. 24 to begin the application process for a 2 a.m. state permit.

"The concern I have ... is it appears that we are not going to be on the same page as the county commissioners in view of their recent actions," Larson said.

City Attorney Al Felix said the council basically had three options:

- Do nothing.

- Put in place a moratorium prohibiting action on potential 2 a.m. applicants until the county takes action.

- Begin an ordinance process to return the city to 1 a.m. bar closing times.

Even if the council does not ultimately endorse the 1 a.m. ordinance, Felix said, it would at least begin the process, which would last well into April.

"One of the items that had greater consensus at the work session was the desire to be on the same page with each other, whether that is 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.," Larson said.

Johnson and Waldhausen said they did not understand why the city would now change their ordinance in reaction to what the county might do.

"I just want to remind you that we changed our ordinance to be in line with the county," Waldhausen said, noting that the county has had a 2 a.m. bar closing time since 2003. "It's a little perplexing that after seven and a half years, the county saw a huge issue and a problem with their 2 a.m. allowance after we started talking."

Thompson, who did not take sides in the debate before casting his vote, said that as the at-large councilor, he has received a lot of calls on the issue.

As of Monday, he said, callers were exactly split with equal numbers for and against the 2 a.m. bar closing time.

Waldhausen also said there was an unsubstantiated perception that there would be a "rush" as people would leave a county bar at 1 a.m. to make it to a city bar before its 2 a.m. closing.

He said all of the research he did with area and statewide law enforcement showed there were no such problems.

For instance, Park Rapids has a 1 a.m. bar closing time, but there are establishments outside of the city limits with a 2 a.m. bar closing time.

Waldhausen said the police chief in Park Rapids told him he did not have a rush issue.

"That seems to be, of all the law enforcement I talked to across the state, that was their general answer based on what they actually saw in their patrol cars," he said.

Why is Bemidji different, he asked.

Albrecht said this area is second per capita for violent crime. She referenced comments from Police Chief Gerald Johnson, who said a lot of the area's crime problems are related to poverty and the geographic location to nearby reservations.

This area's crime also is more often related to alcohol abuse, she said.

Bemidji is not a border town like others who have implemented 2 a.m. bar closing times to compete, she said.

Albrecht said she trusts the positions of the police chief and county sheriff, who have spoken out against the later bar closing time.

It would be difficult to ask the police chief to stretch the hours of his officers even more, she said.

"I do not think it would be a positive thing to ask them to do more with less," she said.

Waldhausen said that, again, is perception. He argued that there was no proof that a 2 a.m. bar closing time would have an effect on crime rates.

He said everything he hears in response to his evidence starts with the words "I think" while he presents evidence from people who can say "I know."

"I will always side with 'I know' versus 'I think,'" he said.

Hellquist said he knows a woman who recently spent a night in St. Cloud and stayed in a hotel near where the bars are open until 2 a.m.

She was repeatedly woken up at 3 a.m. due to a fight and general "mayhem" outside her window, Hellquist said.

He said hotel management apologized profusely, saying such problems occur every weekend.

Hellquist then made the motion to implement a moratorium and to have staff prepare an ordinance to return the city to a 1 a.m. bar closing time.

Albrecht said she appreciated that Hellquist made the motion.

The day after the former council in December voted to extend serving times, Albrecht said, she was contacted by a resident who asked if she would try to repeal the decision once she was seated in January.

Albrecht said she believed that that motion, if it was to be made, needed to come from a member of the former council.