City Tackles Liquor License Confusion, Drinking Culture

Numerous local liquor license holders that require city approval to operate have failed, employees told Traverse City officials this week – a loophole due to confusion between local and state regulations and inconsistent communications by Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC)). While the city works to help business owners comply with regulations, it is also addressing the larger problem of the overall drinking culture in the community.

Traverse City has required liquor license holders to register with the city since 2013 and also obtain MLCC permits to operate. Without the city registration, which must be approved by the commissioners, alcohol sales cannot take place in the company, says city clerk Benjamin Marentette. City registration serves two purposes: it enables city and county officials to conduct background checks on owners and ensure the company is complying with all fire, zone and safety regulations. In addition, the city can punish troubled bars, restaurants, or shops by temporarily revoking their working order – a decision that can be quickly reversed if the company meets the requirements – rather than resorting to the far more serious step of asking the MLCC to revoke it their license.

Marentette says local parishes had alcohol permits in the past before the state would transfer them, but that changed under former Governor Rick Snyder. When local oversight was withdrawn, Traverse City officials passed a policy to ensure the city still has a say in community alcohol sales. “We wanted to make sure that we still have the ability to regulate where in the city licenses for spirits are operated. So it made sense for us to keep the city’s ability to do this (with the registration policy), ”says Marentette. “This makes it so that the city has a softer hammer when there is a problem with a licensee rather than the nuclear option of going to the state (to revoke the license).”

Marentette told commissioners that in recent years the MLCC has not “100 percent consistently notified” the clerk’s office when liquor licenses are transferred to new businesses or owners in Traverse City. This means that the city does not always know who is operating where or whether each company has the required city registration. To fill these gaps, staff began an annual process – which will soon become a quarterly process – of comparing the city’s database with the MLCC database. The most recent review found that nearly two dozen companies are non-compliant with the city either because they haven’t received city registration, have experienced changes of ownership, or need to add catering, local, or other types of licenses to paperwork. The list includes a wide range of Traverse City gas stations / convenience stores, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and retail stores.

Marentette told commissioners they should expect numerous liquor license applications to appear on their agendas over the next two months as the city works with owners to update their registrations. Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe said it was important for commissioners and the public to remember that the filings are not a deluge of new alcohol-related businesses, but rather existing owners complying with the regulations. “These are places that are already here,” she said. Commissioners on Monday approved such a motion for Little G’s on West Front Street, which had been selling alcoholic beverages under state authorization for several months but had not yet received a permit to operate the city.

Marentette says most non-compliant owners simply failed to realize that there are registration requirements for cities in addition to government regulations, and that the vast majority have worked cooperatively to achieve compliance once notified. Code checks have found some “fixes” needed for security measures here and there, but no serious problems so far, he says. While City Commissioner Brian McGillivary said “ignorance of the law is no excuse” and that it is the responsibility of owners to ensure that they comply with all local and state regulations, he has reserved his harshest criticisms for the MLCC.

“This is my problem with the Liquor Control Commission: we are trying to rely on them to regulate the industry, even though they don’t even give us the courtesy to notify us when they issue liquor licenses in town,” said he said. “It’s disappointing. These licenses are issued, these organizations work, we have no knowledge of them. We require some people to come in front of us and provide information and work professionally, others just come over. “Other MLCC inconsistencies cited by city officials include transferring liquor remediation licenses in some cases but not other cases, and sometimes enforcing a cap on the number of liquor licenses in a community while the upper limit is ignored at other times. Shamroe said she shared McGillivary’s “frustration” with the MLCC and recommended that the city step up its own training and reach to ensure new liquor license holders understand all of the requirements.

In a statement to The Ticker, Jeannie Vogel, MLCC public information officer, said the state is sending a notice of some types of liquor license transfers to the city clerk’s office, but that this step is not required in all circumstances. “However, all permit orders (MLCC) warn licensees to ensure that they have met all local and state requirements for licensing,” she wrote. “While the Licensing Department of the (MLCC) may not require a response from a local entity before reviewing an application, it is the responsibility of the applicant to meet all local requirements and also to obtain the MLCC approval. When the (MLCC) approves someone for a license, it does not automatically grant them the right to use the license unless they have received proper approval from other departments. “

Keeping local liquor license holders up to date on registration is just one step the city is taking to address alcohol sales and consumption in the community. City officials from multiple departments are also working on a grant-funded Healthier Drinking Culture initiative that aims to create both short- and long-term recommendations for reducing problematic drinking habits – such as binge drinking, property damage, moody / inappropriate behavior, and drunk driving – and all at the same time Promote responsible consumption in local bars, breweries, wineries and other establishments. A public poll was launched this week to get feedback from residents about the drinking culture in Traverse City. It will stay live until 5 p.m. on March 26th. City Manager Marty Colburn also said employees will meet with key community stakeholders this spring to raise funds.

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