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Parking ‘crackdown’ draws criticism: New downtown initiative could encourage drunk driving, opponents say

BEMIDJI — New rules for Bemidji’s downtown parking lots are raising concerns the “crackdown” on cars staying the night may lead to more drunk driving.

The city-owned lots are now closed from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m, whereas before the ban extended only to cars parking for more than several hours at a time without a permit.

The change allows the Bemidji Police Department to more easily regulate the lots through ticketing because they now don’t have to measure when the requisite amount of time has passed before giving a citation.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, the new regulations took some flak from the public.

Downtown parking was not on the agenda, but two people came forward to say the change in regulations (and perceived increase in tickets) could lead to more people driving drunk.  

Amos Miller, an employee at one of the city-owned liquor stores, and Mike Bredon, executive director of Upstream TV (who also records council meetings to broadcast on the network) both spoke out against the change.

“A crackdown, be it ticketing or towing, is a (discouragement) to people making correct decisions downtown… finding an alternate means home after a night of drinking,” Miller, who also works as a bartender downtown, told the council.  

Bredon agreed.

“If we ask ourselves the pure and simple question, ‘Is this going to encourage drinking and driving?’ the pure and simple answer is, ‘Yes, it is,’” he said. “If that is the case, we need to find a better way. I do think something needs to be done, but such a broad stroke brought forth by four people in a meeting… I think it should be something the council should review and vote upon.”

After Miller and Bredon spoke, City Engineer Craig Gray gave background information on the change in enforcement.

He said the change was based on concerns from the Bemidji Downtown Alliance, formerly the Downtown Development Authority, that the lots were being clogged by overnight parkers with a negative effect on business.

The city itself also reportedly received complaints about the backlog.

It was decided from review of the issue between members of the BDA, city officials and law enforcement that the new regulations should be put in place, Gray said.

City law allows for new regulations to be instituted by city staff without a council vote as long as they govern city parking lots and not city streets, he said.

There were also issues with plowing the lot effectively when people left cars overnight, Gray said.

The city can regulate its lots in three ways, he said: to allow for easy snow removal, to allow for nearby residents to park their cars in the lot, or to allow for intoxicated people to park their cars overnight.

“We can’t do all three,” he said. “The BDA and the police chief put a higher emphasis on options one and two.”

The changes have been in effect for several weeks.

In a notice about the changes, Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin cited the snow removal, parking backlog and inconsistency in enforcement.

“Of course the police department does not want people to operate a vehicle intoxicated so the options are simple, plan ahead for a sober driver, purchase a permit from the (BDA) near their favorite establishment, walk or cab ride to and from downtown or pay the $20 parking ticket instead of chancing the DWI or accident,” the notice read.

City charter changes

The council also held a public hearing on a pending ordinance that would change the rules when it comes to filling vacant City Council seats in the event of a member’s unexpected departure.

The new ordinance defines any vacancy that occurs a year or more ahead of a regular election as demanding a special election.

With a vacancy that happens less than a year before a regular election, the council must simply pick someone to fill the spot.

As it stands now, the city charter allows the council to appoint replacements for any length of time until the next regular election as long as they do it within 30 days of the vacancy.

No citizens spoke during the public hearing.