In February 2014, the former owners of six shuttered Racine bars filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Racine and more than a dozen people, including then-Mayor John Dickert and other current and former city officials, accusing them of conspiring to drive minority-owned bars out of the city.
On Oct. 6, 2015, the City Council approved a $1.35 million settlement with the lawsuit plaintiffs and their attorneys. While the city expressed confidence it would win at trial, the city’s legal counsel said the decision to settle was based on mitigating risks: if a jury had awarded the plaintiffs even $1 each, it would have triggered the plaintiffs’ attorneys ability to collect fees and costs, which stood at $7.2 million and might not have been covered by the city’s insurance. The city’s own legal costs in the case stood at $2.7 million at the time of the settlement.
Those are rather steep dollar amounts, deriving from a contention by local bar owners that the city illegally used race or ethnicity as a factor in deciding whether to take liquor licenses away.
With the memory of that legal battle still somewhat fresh in Racinians’ minds, it was good to read last week that the city is proposing a move toward a more objective method of monitoring compliance with city and state laws regarding alcohol.
The proposal calls for a point system that could identify license holders who are “habitually troublesome” for the city — meaning those that repeatedly violate state laws or city ordinances. A point system would guide city officials in determining whether to consider suspending or revoking a license.
Demerit points would track license holders’ performance, the proposal states. A licensed premise could face a complaint and discipline procedure if it accumulates 100 demerit points in a 24-month period. That discipline could be a suspension between 10 and 90 days, or revocation of the license.
Offenses are assigned point values based on severity. An underage person on the premises would result in a 15-point demerit, and serving an intoxicated person would cost 20 points. Demerit points would be counted after a conviction is documented for an offense listed in the recommended point system.
“(We) see this as a way of tightening up the process, frankly, taking away the possibility of discretion,” City Attorney Scott Letteney told the City Council Committee of the Whole earlier this month.
We can’t help but connect Mr. Letteney’s reference to discretion with the 2014-15 lawsuit in our minds. For that reason alone, we think a move to a demerits-based system would be an excellent choice for the city.
We’re troubled, though, by this aspect of the proposal: Some offenses are proposed to be worth 100 points on their own, such as violating restaurant sanitation requirements, failing to abate code violations and making a false statement on the application for the license.
A 100-point demerit for a false statement on the application? We’re fine with that; obtaining one of the city’s finite number of liquor licenses under false pretenses would be poisoning the well.
It’s violating restaurant sanitation requirements being worth 100 points that gives us pause. We want every restaurant in the city, and all of Racine County, to be up to code on sanitation, but a liquor license holder going directly to 100 points for any single violation feels a bit too much like “one strike and you’re out” to us. We’d rather see that be assigned a demerit value below 100.
Failing to abate code violations being worth 100 points is still troublesome to us, but less so. If a license holder were to receive written notification of a code violation well before he or she were cited with a failure to abate? That would seem like fair warning to us.
But all of these arguments are in the realm of what point values to assign to a given violation. Objective measures, as opposed to subjective. That’s good.
If the city has documented objective measures of a liquor license holder’s failure to comply, we’re confident such a case will start and stop at the city Public Safety and Licensing Committee, rather than making its way up Interstate 94 to federal court in Milwaukee.