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Bemidji City Council: Bars may stay open longer

Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann, left, talks with Mayor-elect Dave Larson Monday night in a reception held at City Hall prior to the regular council meeting. The reception was held in honor of Lehmann and Councilors Jerry Downs and Barb Meuers, who all stepped down from their respective council positions following Monday night's meeting. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Last call just got a little later. The Bemidji City Council voted 4-3 Monday night to allow city bars the option of serving alcohol one hour later, from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The council voted to amend its existing alcohol ordinance to allow for the later bar closing time. Voting in favor were Councilors Jerry Downs, Ron Johnson, Greg Negard and Kevin Waldhausen. Opposed were Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Roger Hellquist and Barb Meuers.

No discussion occurred prior to the vote.

However, before the council adjourned, some councilors addressed the 2 a.m. vote during the time reserved for regular council updates.

Opening discussion were Meuers and Downs, who were presiding over their last council meeting along with Lehmann, who spoke last.

Meuers said she was "disappointed" with the council's vote.

"I'm so disappointed the council doesn't listen to its constituents," she said.

Meuers said she did not understand how the council could disregard the positions of Police Chief Gerald Johnson and Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp, who both are opposed to the later bar times.

She said she did not understand how allowing alcohol to be served later would better the Bemidji community.

"I don't consider the 2 a.m. (closing time) to be a bad deal," Downs responded.

Downs said the later bar time would allow the city more flexibility and would offer a better chance of selling land in the south shore, which, in turn, would keep taxes down.

"One of the goals of the council is to sell the south shore," he said.

Downs said that if he were a police chief or a minister, he, too, would probably be against the later bar closing time. But, he said, as he went downtown to do his Christmas shopping this year, he said most of the people he spoke with supported the later bar times.

Negard, who took the longest pause before casting his vote, said he disagreed with Meuers' statement that councilors did not listen to their constituents.

"The vote tonight was very stressful on me," he said, noting that he spent this weekend receiving multiple phone calls and e-mails about the 2 a.m. bar closing time.

People on both sides of the issue are passionate, he said.

"I made my final decision based on what I heard from my constituents," Negard said.

He said that serving as a councilor is not an easy job.

"Sitting in this chair is like sitting in a hot seat. You try to do the best you can," he said. "I could have gone either way ... hopefully, we did the right thing. Time will tell."

Lehmann agreed, saying that people who write letters to the editor or blog entries about council decisions all have their own biases.

"They never are done without heavy feelings one way or another," he said.

He said the city of Bemidji should be proud of its councilors, who debate and discuss issues before making up their minds.

"We do our homework. We do our jobs," he said, "and that's what we were elected to do."

The newly revised ordinance takes effect 30 days after legal publication. Bars that choose to exercise their option to serve alcohol later will have to obtain a state license to remain open longer.

The council did not take public comment on the 2 a.m. issue during the meeting.

In other business...

The proposal of a 2 a.m. bar closing time was included on a fairly full end-of-the-year council agenda. Also approved were the 2001 final budget and levy, plans for a new digester building for the Wastewater Treatment Plant, the 2011-2015 Capital Improvement Plan and the 2011 budget for The Sanford Center.

The council also summarized the annual review of City Manager John Chattin, focusing on the five main city goals for 2010 - south shore redevelopment, developing contingency plans in case of a loss of Local Government Aid, expanding annexation plans, ensuring that the Quality Neighborhood Initiative plan would move forward and promotion and marketing of The Sanford Center.

"Respecting overall performance, council members recognized the achievements associated with each issue, but expressed dissatisfaction with the status of annexation efforts generally, as well as with the minimal participation of the council in the QNI study process," recapped Mayor Richard Lehmann. "Several council members were particularly critical of their communication with the city manager individually and the governing body as a whole, prompting them to propose and recommend that the council meet with the manager periodically to discuss matters and issues then currently involving the city.

"Consensus was reached that 'communication' is the key issue that split how individual council members perceived the city manager's overall performance."