JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Town Council voted last night to suspend the liquor license of the Virginian Saloon for 120 days beginning March 25. Electeds put off making what they termed an “unfortunate” decision for as long as they could, trying to find a way out of punishing the popular watering hole for three failed compliance checks. After avoiding a decision last month, council again pawed the ground at yesterday’s meeting before dropping the hammer.
Councilman Arne Jorgenson began the discussion by saying he was attempting to readjust his focus from a previous meeting on January 22 when the council spent much of its time trying to find a way to let the Virg off the hook before eventually continuing the item to February 4.
“I am trying to remind myself the business is here for a reason and it was they who put themselves in this spot. Rather than spend time trying to find a way out, I’ve decided to focus on what we are being asked. And the fact that this is supposed to hurt,” Jorgenson summarized.
The Virg’s problems began with a failed compliance check on August 15, 2018 when a package store clerk sold alcohol to a 20-year-old working for the Police Department. The clerk was issued a citation and ordered to attend TIPS training within 30 days of the violation. The clerk completed four hours of TIPS training 49 days after the citation.
The package store again failed a follow up compliance check on December 20, 2018, when a clerk sold a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice to a minor. Eight days later, the same clerk sold beer to an underaged drinker for a third failed compliance check within a year.
The three strikes and you’re out ordinance (Ord. 1173) was adopted by the council in May 2017 in a desire to assess stricter penalties on liquor license holders who fail to check a person’s identification before selling alcohol to them.
Pizzeria Caldera was the first business to run afoul of the new ordinance when it had its restaurant liquor license suspended for 120 days last February 2018 after three failed compliance checks.
The ordinance states that: “If a business fails a third consecutive compliance check, or a third compliance check in a twelve-month period, the business shall be subject to suspension for a minimum of 120 days and shall be subject to revocation proceedings.”
How they voted
Councilors were sensitive to both the general manager’s forthright admission of guilt and promise to do better, as well as upcoming events at the Virg that would benefit greatly from tapped kegs (49er Ball, Hill Climb festivities). After spending most of their time looking for legal room to wiggle out of punishing the Virg, the five electeds grudgingly zeroed in on timing of the suspension, which they did have some control over.
“I feel for you. It is not something I take lightly, and not something I am happy doing,” said Jim Stanford, calling up the saloon’s general manager. “Unfortunately this is the way the law is written. Would you want to start the suspension now or wait until March 25th?”
“Twenty-fifth,” GM Judy Peters answered.
Other councilmembers wanted to explore the legality of suspending take-out alcohol sales only since that’s where the violations occurred, and allow the bar to operate as long as everything was consumed on-promise. Town attorney Audrey Cohen Davis said although the statute didn’t specifically state a retail liquor license could be ‘split’ that way it didn’t say it couldn’t.
It was enough wiggle room for Jorgenson, who urged his colleagues in that direction.
Jonathan Schechter also leaned that way. “There is nothing that says we can split the baby in half but nothing saying we can’t,” he postured aloud.
“It could be challenged, which is generally the world we live in,” warned Cohen Davis.
With the establishment facing a renewal of its liquor license in February, councilors turned their sights on imposing strict conditions then instead of suspending the license now.
“What happens if we postpone a decision on this until we change the ordinance?” Mayor Pete Muldoon asked.
Cohen Davis said they could do that but the punishment for the crime at the time it took place is the one that would have to be enforced.
Councilmembers then asked about catering permits and whether the Virg could still hold upcoming special events by using these.
“I think we are required to suspend. We can attach conditions to the renewal, but for now we have to suspend,” Muldoon said. “I will reluctantly support the motion but I do think we need to revisit this. I agree these ordinances are supposed to hurt but what they are really supposed to do is prevent the sales of alcohol to minors. And I’m not sure that is happening.”
Schechter said, “Yuck. There’s really no good decision here. People are going to get hurt one way or another. We do have our hands tied pretty tightly. I don’t see any way around that…”
The council voted unanimously to suspend the Virginian’s liquor license for 120 days beginning March 25, 2019.