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Raising the bar
City officials begin discussion on a new round of regulations for bars in the city
Bartender Pat Lawrence displays a collection of fake IDs confiscated from underage drinkers in Savannah. - photo by Geoff L. Johnson

After high profile battles with several downtown establishments in the last year about underage drinking violations, city officials are proposing a new ordinance that will mandate training and licensing of staff who serve alcohol at bars across the city.

The proposed training classes would educate bar staff on applicable state and local laws, methods of telling whether patrons are too inebriated to continue drinking and how to spot fake IDs. The classes would be a required component of the city's effort to register and license staff at bars and "hybrid" bar-restaurants, which could also include badges identifying staff as city-licensed.

While details of the new regulations are still under discussion, supporters say the changes would represent a positive step toward combating underage drinking while leveling the distribution of punishment for infractions, which many believe has been too harsh on bar owners, and too lenient on those committing the crimes.

"We've been holding businesses responsible, and it's not only the business's fault," says Alderman Van Johnson. "A business could do everything they could, but if someone decided to serve to their friend who was underage, the business was the one who got in trouble."

The disproportionate punitive measures for violations became clear after a hearing involving Wild Wing Café in March, the establishment's third citation for serving underagers.

"They [the bartenders who are caught serving underage drinkers] walk away from that, and they leave a 10-day suspension on all the employees and the establishment itself," says Alderman Tony Thomas. "In retrospect, I think that was a harsh penalty."

In response, city officials are searching for a way to regulate underage drinking without punishing the business owners so heavily for the indiscretions of their staff, and the changes in ordinance would help to fight the ease with which irresponsible bartenders are re-hired at other establishments.

The change under consideration would require staff who serves alcohol to be registered with the city upon completion of the required training courses. After their first infraction, a server would face temporary suspension and a probationary period, during which time a second infraction would result in a revocation of their server license, rendering repeat offenders unable to work in bars across the city for several years.

"We have had indications that the behavior, training and the professionalism of staff is critical," Brown told city council members during a workshop on June 18, and the licensing classes are seen as a way to create a standard for servers throughout the city, ensuring awareness and continuity of enforcement that will prevent future incidents.

"A lack of training was one of the biggest problems," says Sgt. Laura Lusk of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, where mandatory server training has been in place since 2007 - one of several municipalities in the state with active server training.

Savannah's proposed regulations have critics though, including some members of the service industry, who argue that everyone is being punished for the mistakes of a few bad apples.

"The whole thing is being blown out of proportion," says Patrick Lawrence, a bartender who has worked at several establishments downtown. "Why not just enforce this at bars that have been a problem?"

To drive home his point, Lawrence pulls out a stack of dozens of fake IDs that have been confiscated by bartenders and doormen. The fakes pose an interesting question: Do they represent that enforcement is being carried out to the letter of the law by most bar staff?

Or are these confiscated IDs, along with kindred stacks held behind bars across the city, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, rendering even adequate enforcement measures hopeless against the onslaught of underage barbarians at the gates?

To date, most of the City Council's debate on the subject has been directed at how to make punishment for violations more even-handed, and while they seem dedicated to relieving some of the punitive pressure from bar owners, there is still not an overwhelming push to toughen consequences for the underagers who are making this regulation necessary by trying to dubiously infiltrate bars.

"I hope there's a component that also looks at what we can do to the person who actually violates the law," says Alderman Thomas. "From what I hear, they basically get slapped on the wrist and walk away with a light fine."

"Sometimes the server and the business get in trouble, and the offender walks away scot free," says Alderman Johnson. However, he would not go so far as to say he would support increasing penalties for underage drinkers, something the mayor has also come out against in the past.

There are currently 460 establishments with liquor licenses in Savannah, according to the City's Revenue Department, and about one quarter of those are bars or "hybrid" bar-restaurants, the two classifications that would be subject to the proposed server regulations.

Several attempts were made to contact the SCMPD's Public Information Department for exact data on the numbers of citations given to bars and underage drinkers, but without any response, leaving the question of how serious a problem underage drinking is in the city.

"Sometimes the City of Savannah tries too hard to catch people," says Jayme Simmonds, a bartender who has worked at several establishments since moving to Savannah from Florida eight years ago. "[Underage drinking] is a bigger problem in other cities [than here]. In Orlando, it's worse."

Alderman Johnson recognizes that the city is faced with a variety of social issues, however, he is wary of comparing the relative severity of different matters of public safety. "[The city council] are people charged with public safety and we're responsible for it all," he says. "We don't have the luxury of being able to cherry pick one event as opposed to another."

However, alcohol-related matters seem to have taken up a substantial amount of the current administration's time. After council voted to raise the age of admittance for bars and clubs from 18 to 21 in 2006, a controversial change that netted impressive results and lowered the number of incidents involving underage drinkers and public disturbances downtown, city officials had to deal with restructuring the ordinance in 2007 to address ambiguity with restaurants that hosted live music. It was that process which lead to the current "hybrid" bar-restaurant designation, after a high profile battle between the City and Loco's Grill & Pub on Broughton Street.

Those changes were followed this spring by the longest council meeting in recent history, which took place in March, a seven-hour long hearing to deal with punitive measures for infractions at Wild Wing Café and the Tiger's Den.

"Public safety?" asks Lawrence. "A guy got robbed at the ATM over in [Johnson] square the other day by a couple of kids. What are we doing about people getting robbed in broad daylight in downtown Savannah?"

Lawrence sees the proposed regulations as an unnecessarily complicated and expensive solution to a relatively minor problem. "Let's just make a list of people who've been caught [selling to underage drinkers] and give it to all the bars so they don't get hired again," he says. "One person could do that."

For Simmonds, the idea of taking classes isn't that big a deal, "It's not a bad thing necessarily," he says, explaining that alcohol server certification was required in Florida, and that he completed classes online for it several years ago. He does, however, take issue with the proposed cost of classes being absorbed by bar staff, essentially having to pay the city to continue doing jobs they already have.

"It shouldn't cost us anything," he states. "It should be government-funded."

In a year where city officials are looking into ways to tighten purse strings because of declining tax revenue, that doesn't seem likely at this point. However, once city officials have completed a first draft of the new ordinance, there is a desire to meet with service industry employees, hear their grievances and come to some sort of compromise.

"We want to talk to some of the bartenders...ones that have been in the business, and get some insight from them on what they feel the challenges are," says Alderman Thomas. "In order to make this successful it's got to be crafted with participation from everyone."

[Updated] A public meeting has been set up for July 14 from 5:30-7:30pm in the Civic Center Ballroom. The meeting will allow bar owners and staff to discuss the proposed ordinance with members of city council.

Once a version of the ordinance is approved, there would be a six month process to implement the new system, which Alderman Jeff Felser would like to see in place before St. Patrick's Day of 2010.