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City council holds firm
Riverton City Council members Mary Ellen Christensen, left, Todd Smith, Lars Baker and Mayor Ron Warpness heard citizen comments on alcohol catering permits during the City Council meeting Tuesday. Photo by Jamie Drendel

City council holds firm on catering permit number

Feb 9, 2012 - By Emily Etheredge Staff Writer

Catering permits and problems associated with alcohol use sparked another lengthy discussion at the Riverton City Council meeting Tuesday.

City residents expressed mixed feelings on whether the council should increase the number of catering permits from the original six per licensee per year to the state level of 24 per venue.

Michelle DesEnfants first voiced her concern in raising the number of permits to 24 during the city council meeting Jan. 17. DesEnfants said she is in support of local business, but she is concerned about the problem alcohol has in the community. On Tuesday she challenged the council to consider increasing the permits after alcohol problems settle down in Riverton.

"I wanted to add to the comments I made last time that I am not against alcohol, nor am I against the limits that are already in place, but I understand the new wording isn't a limitation," DesEnfants said. "We are trying to change it from having a limit of six to having no limits as long as the locations are changed, so I ask the council to please vote no in increasing the permits at this time."

Resident DJ Sweet said 700 people get arrested for driving under the influence every year in the county and that this is nothing to be proud of.

"I know we can't legislate morality, but I know for a fact that someone who went to the PAWS party received a DUI," Sweet said. "No matter how great the caterers train everyone, the more parties we throw with alcohol, the more problems we will have."

Tauna GroomSmith from Fremont Counseling Service gave a staggering account of the number of suicides committed in Fremont County as a result of alcohol. She said that alcohol is a natural depressant, and the more alcohol that is available, the more it costs the community in the way of suicidal tendencies.

GroomSmith said that one out of 20 people think about suicide in a two-week period and drinking a natural depressant can increase the number of suicidal thoughts.

"Everyone in this room look around? One of us in this room has more than likely thought about suicide, and if you mix alcohol into that equation you have a lot of people thinking and drinking irresponsibly," GroomSmith said.

Howard Johnson approached the council as the chairman of Ducks Unlimited and said that his event has grown considerably over the years.

"I moved to Riverton in 1976, and our event was probably only about 100 to 150 people, and we would host the event at the Elks or Eagles club where we had fairly tight control over the alcohol," Johnson said. "Now, our events host 400 to 500 guests, and the only venue that really holds that amount of people is the fairgrounds. We don't have the tight-knit control we normally did so therefore entrust the caterers to enforce that control."

He said that the caterers in the community are trained professionals, and employing them to dispense the alcohol at functions that a large number of people attend is the only way an event in the community can be successful.

"We are happy to see our event grow to the size that it has, and I can only remember a few times where someone had a problem and had to be asked to leave," Johnson said.

"I don't disagree that we have an alcohol problem in this town, but one of my questions would be how many of those folks came from one of these kinds of events and got in that kind of trouble? I would like to make sure people attending my event are the people that don't get in the kind of trouble we think they would. I guess now would be the time for me to make a plug for a recreation center in this town."

Johnson said the council should allow the caterers more permits because they are not at the heart of the alcohol issues in the community.

Jason Hawk, owner of Bar 10, asked the council to consider the effect that not increasing the number of permits has on his business. He said he agreed with everyone that the community has problems and asked everyone to take on the perspective of a small business owner who is trying to stay alive in a community in which he has invested time and money.

"I am coming to the council because I want the opportunity to work these events," Hawk said. "I hear the statistics and recognize the problems, but I also think these events that we are talking about here are the ones where people get babysitters, put on their best dressed, and I think they monitor themselves. I think people would be embarrassed if they were the ones showing up to these events and being escorted to leave."

Hawk said that bar owners don't enjoy seeing people get hurt, and they try really hard to regulate the events. He also suggested that the council consider funding a free taxi service to take event participants home.

"I would be the first to throw money at something like that and would be happy to move forward in that sense or any other ideas that are out there to help out with the alcohol problem," Hawk said. "Just let me cater these events and run them responsibly."

Councilwoman Mary Ellen Christensen said she was sympathetic toward the comments being discussed during the meeting and said she has been to events where designated drivers are present to make sure everyone gets home safely.

After researching the prohibition, Christensen said that when people were trying to stop drinking it brought about numerous social problems.

"People will drink if they want to drink, and I would like to have people like Jason, who I know is responsible, to be in charge at these events," Christensen said. "If I drink and I get in a car and drive away, then I deserve to be arrested, but we shouldn't punish the caterers who are trying to expand their businesses by keeping the permits at six per venue."

Christensen made a motion to amend the current ordinance, passed on first reading of six permits per venue, to raise the catering permits to 24 per venue. Councilmen Todd Smith, Lars Baker and Richard Gard and Mayor Warpness voted down the measure. Councilwomen Christensen and Diana Mahoney and councilman Eric Heiser voted yes. Christensen then made a motion for the permits to be raised to 18 per venue, and the move was again outvoted.

Warpness suggested that the council may never get unanimity on the issue. The second reading, the original ordinance of six catering events per venue, was passed.

The move increases the number of catering permits from six per license holder per year to six per venue per year. The State of Wyoming allows more, setting the limit at 24 permits per venue per year.

The third reading is set for Feb. 21.