Proposed social host ordinance: an effective way to combat Montana's culture of underage drinking and driving, or the worst sort of "nanny-statism"?

Discuss.

Discuss they did Wednesday in the Missoula City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee, so much so that a formal public hearing on the issue isn’t likely to be scheduled any time soon.

Wednesday’s session ended without any action by the committee.

Chairman Dave Strohmaier, who is floating the ordinance, said he’ll schedule another committee meeting on the proposal, although likely not until January. There’s even a chance – given Wednesday’s reaction – that the measure could die in committee, he said.

But, he said, “that would be rare.”

 

But, he said, "that would be rare."

Strohmaier described his proposal as an attempt to curb the "underage drinking that I think has a direct relationship to DUI."

Montana is one of the worst-ranked states in terms of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. When it comes to young people, alcohol and drugs were a factor in 50 percent of all fatal crashes in the last 10 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Strohmaier's proposal would apply to people who knowingly - "and knowingly is the key," he said - hold events where underage drinking occurs.

The mandatory minimum penalty would be $500 for a first offense; second and subsequent offenses could bring the fine plus a minimum of two days in jail, or a maximum of six months - unless the drinkers in question are under age 16, and then the minimum would be five days in jail.

In addition to the fine, those violating the ordinance would have to reimburse the cost of the law enforcement response to the event.

Assistant Police Chief Mike Brady and Lt. Scott Brodie presented statistics culled from a Nov. 14 party in Grant Creek that involved citations for 39 people under age 21.

A lieutenant, two sergeants and eight patrol officers responded after the complaint was called in at 1:51 a.m., and the police work at the house wasn't wrapped up until 5:20 a.m., Brodie said. Because so many police officers were required to deal with the party, two others had to work overtime to cover shifts, he said.

Total cost to the department: $1,704.

Councilors nodded. Then they peppered Strohmaier with various scenarios.

What if adults held, say, an eighth-grade graduation party and the kids sneaked beer in? Renee Mitchell wondered. What if adults were away for the winter and a teenage grandchild used their house for a party?

"The key operative phrase is knowledge," Strohmaier replied.

"I'm playing devil's advocate, trying to muddy it up as much as possible," Mitchell said.

Bob Jaffe wondered where he'd stand as a landlord to students who almost certainly, given statistics, drank on his property.

"I would ask for a show of hands of people who never consumed alcohol as a minor," Jaffe said, pointedly including the audience at Wednesday's meeting. No hands went up.

And Jaffe took issue with the proposal's terminology, especially the concepts of "knowledge" and of "reasonable steps to prevent."

That depends, he said, on "how we're defining knowledge, how we're defining reasonable steps. Who gets to define that?" he asked. "The net of people who are involved in this is extremely wide."

Councilman Roy Houseman claimed particular expertise in the field, "being the only one here who was underage less than a decade ago."

"I think this is kind of nanny state-ish, to say the least," he said. "This to me is some sort of overzealous activity on those darned kids that are having a party and we're gonna get 'em."

Calling the scenario "ridiculous," he said that "we're giving a lot of state authority to something that's a family thing and a community thing."

The proposal needs some serious reworking, said Councilwoman Stacy Rye, predicting "a lot of unintended consequences" to the ordinance as it now stands.

"I have a problem with abstinence-only messaging in any situation," saying it doesn't keep teens from having sex and it won't keep them from drinking, either. "We end up coming up with laws that don't really get at this cat we want to skin," she said.

And, she added, "I can't see supporting this."

Former Councilman John Hendrickson was in the audience Wednesday.

The proposal, he said, "puts a homeowner at a disadvantage. I think everybody wants to curtail underage drinking. It's how you go about it."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or gwen.

florio@missoulian.com.

 

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