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Council Stays Mum on Teen Drinking Law

The heated debate over fining parents for minors who imbibe at parties on their property, known as the Social Host Ordinance, spilled into Laguna Beach’s campaign for City Council on Tuesday when residents presented a petition to the current elected officials, demanding to know how they intend to vote on the measure.

The proposal is due to come before the council on Nov. 13, a week after voters go to the polls to decide whether two of the five incumbents, Mayor Jane Egly and Verna Rollinger, will be re-elected.

Steve Cassill, a parent of two teenagers at the high school, presented the petition opposing the proposed ordinance and signed by 335 residents over the past week.

Council member Toni Iseman informed Cassill that council members are prohibited from taking a public position on an issue before it is formally under consideration in a noticed public meeting. “I hope you don’t put people in that wedge position of having to respond,” she cautioned.

While Egly and Rollinger may be barred from crossing such a boundary, opposition candidate Robert Whalen already signaled he supports the measure in a video interview with the Indy.  Asked about his position on Thursday, City Council challenger Steve Dicterow opposes the measure, saying current state law gives police  adequate tools to deal with the issue. “The best thing is for the city and schools to have a more proactive policy,” he said.

The proposed Social Host Ordinance would fine adults for hosting parties where minors are drinking and using drugs.  Penalties under the proposed ordinance could require counseling or special classes much like driving school. Fines were preliminarily set at $500 for a first violation, $750 for a second and $1,000 for additional violations.  Illegal underage consumption was defined as 20 years old and younger.

At previous council meetings, high school students, some of whom organized a campus protest and drafted their own counter measure, mostly opposed the measure, saying its consequence would inhibit teenagers from seeking help for inebriated friends or push them into partying in unsafe conditions.  One of the suggested revisions was an amnesty clause for teenagers calling for emergency services regarding a dangerously intoxicated teenager.

Iseman told Cassill that the proposed ordinance regarding underage drinking would probably pass and suggested he “figure out how to make it suitable, what you need to do to tweak it so that it’s acceptable.”

Cassill, who said he lived here as a teen and understands the problem of social drinking now because he counsels teenagers, asked the council to table its Nov. 13 discussion so that more resident awareness and discussions can take place.  The council took no action and Cassill agreed to organize those meetings.

“The shocking thing I learned is that most of the people I spoke with don’t know about this ordinance,” he said, saying the measure increases and expands police authority. He said in previous city meetings his group’s concerns have been dismissed.

“What we would prefer to see, rather than a new law put in place,” Cassill said, “is a way to reward the right behavior by teenagers so that we get them moving in the right direction.”

Irene White, director of special education and student services for the Laguna Beach school district, testified that drug deterrent programs will now be implemented in schools as early as the fourth-grade.  White’s comments preceded those of residents with a presentation on the district’s efforts to rework its approach to preventing teen substance abuse.

She said the district identified gaps in its previous DARE program and will continue a more expansive multi-year program that addresses first-time offenses, intervention, increased options for healthy activities for teenagers and sobriety programs for select students. Recent county reports stated that 54 percent of the students in the school district here have tried alcohol; the state average is 47 percent.

Iseman and Cassill agreed that the split among residents over the proposed ordinance has sparked local interest and people are talking about it more.  “I hope people who are up in arms can recognize that we don’t want a divisive thing in the community,” said Iseman.  “We’re just looking for a way to keep our kids safe.”

Irvine, Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo enacted similar social host ordinances that penalize adults for hosting underage drinking and drug parties.

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