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Beltrami County Board: Process to mandate 1 a.m. closing time for rural bars begins

In direct opposition to the Bemidji City Council's Dec. 20 4-3 vote to allow bars to remain open until 2 a.m., the Beltrami County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to begin the hearing process to mandate a 1 a.m. bar closing for rural bars in Beltrami County.

The County Board members set Feb. 1 for the second reading and public hearing of the ordinance and requested residents both in favor of the 1 a.m. closing time and those against it to express their opinions and reasons in writing and at the next hearing.

So far, commissioners said, their phone messages have been almost totally against the city's 2 a.m. closing time. The callers have urged the County Board to vote for 1 a.m. closing, with one caller to Commissioner Jack Frost urging to add a noon, instead of 9 a.m., opening time for liquor stores.

The commissioners acknowledged the calls they have received are straw polls, but now, they said, they want to go through the formal process and hear from both sides.

Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson spoke in favor of the 1 a.m. closing time. The City Council acted on the 2 a.m. closing before the current mayor and new councilors were in office.

"I think it's time to revisit that issue," Larson said. "It's my personal belief that the government has the responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the community. I just didn't see any good in extending it to 2 a.m."

The County Board members referred to letters from Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp and Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson forcefully urging the City Council to vote against the 2 a.m. extension of bar hours.

"In over 30 years as an officer in the City of Bemidji, I have witnessed that alcohol is the number one substance of abuse," Johnson wrote in his letter, also noting that he believes the extension goes against one of the "Bemidji Leads!" Destiny Drivers in seeking that Bemidji will have by 2015 the lowest incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in the state.

Hodapp wrote that the 2 a.m. closing in the city will create a situation where drinkers migrate from 1 a.m. establishments to the 2 a.m. bars during later drinking hours. He also said 75 percent of the Beltrami County Jail population is in custody for alcohol-related offenses.

Commissioner Jim Heltzer said the costs of maintaining the jail and inmates falls to the county, as do the health, family human services related to alcohol abuse. He said he thinks the City Council members who voted in favor of the 2 a.m. closing didn't make the connection between the extended bar hours and the costs in terms of family troubles and the vulnerable members of the community.

Larson said he wants dialog with the County Board on the 1 a.m. versus 2 a.m. bar closing, as well as cooperation and partnership in other issues. He also invited the County Board members to the City Council's work session Monday.

Newly elected County Board Chairman Joe Vene said County Board members appreciate Larson's appearance and offering of an "olive branch."

"I believe it's unprecedented for a city official, a mayor of Bemidji, to appear before the County Board," Vene said.