Underage-Drinking Law OK’d

The battle over a controversial social host ordinance reached a crossroads Tuesday when the Laguna Beach City Council voted 3-2 to pass the measure. Kelly Boyd, newly installed as mayor, and Steve Dicterow, sworn in that night, voted in opposition.

Though disappointed by the outcome, opponents found a silver lining. In the weeks leading up to the final vote, city administrators revised the measure’s language to reflect concerns raised by opponents, said resident and Indy columnist Dave Vanderveen, who helped organize the Laguna Beach Citizens Coalition that collected 1,600 signatures from opponents.

The measure aims to penalize adults for “knowingly” allowing minors to drink at parties in their homes.

Opponents, who found fault with the preliminary draft of the measure in June as well as the revised version, say their complaints went unanswered until the day before Thanksgiving when newly elected council member Steve Dicterow brokered a conversation between Citizens Coalition members Vanderveen, Howard Hills and Tijana Hamilton and City Manager John Pietig.

City officials integrated some of their suggested revisions into the final version of the document, posted on the city’s web site.

In all, 31 people testified on Tuesday about the ordinance, with 21 individuals speaking against it, including six high school students, and nine voicing support.

Few disagree about the need to curb teen drinking, both because of the adverse effects of alcohol on adolescent brains, as well as the traumas that result from drunk-driving accidents. Differences flare over whether the measure serves as a deterrent. Police say it will give officers another tool to deal with the few problem parents in the community who allow teens to imbibe on their premises.

School district Supt. Sherine Smith called the measure both practical and “symbolic,” reinforcing the notion that enacting the law would signal the town’s ethos about curbing teen drinking. Other ordinance supporters cited the high incidence of teen drinking in Laguna, its deleterious effect on youth, and the need to do something more.

Opponents think existing state laws should be sufficient, citing the paucity of objective studies that prove such local ordinances actually succeed in curbing underage drinking. They insist that unintended consequences of enacting the law, such as kids consuming alcohol in more dangerous environments or police abusing their enforcement authority, outweigh any benefits.

High school student Cary Hamilton worried that the ordinance may push at-risk kids, driving them to drink in the shadows. She argued for more places for kids to gather safely, such as a teen center or skate park. “Reward us for our good choices, rather than punishing us for our bad ones,” she said.

Ron Pringle, a Laguna resident since 1975 who is now 24 years sober, said he understands intimately the problems with alcohol, but the solution is not to enact a new law. Rather they need to reach out to the kids who “are chasing the alcohol dragon,” and he offered his services.

Likewise, Dr. Gary Arthur, father of four kids who has hosted parties and always closely monitored them himself for minors in possession of alcohol, said that his “freedom to be a good parent is part of what’s at stake.” He said it’s his responsibility to look out for his children and that if he were to discover that another parent served his child alcohol, he would be quick to take issue with that parent. “That is my responsibility.”

Despite passionate opponents, the cooperative atmosphere previously absent elicited appreciation for including them in the process and revising the new draft to allay some of their concerns. “Out of that we are starting to make real progress as a community, and that’s really exciting,” said Vanderveen.

Comments by the council members as they cast their votes, mirrored much of the public commentary.

Council member Elizabeth Pearson described the ordinance as a tool for local law enforcement since prosecution of contributing to the delinquency of minors is difficult to prosecute. “We want to take this into our own hands,” she said.

Newly sworn in council member Bob Whalen agreed with opponents that the revised ordinance was superior to the previous one and called it an improvement on the state law for its focus on educating offenders.

Dicterow said that despite the laudable efforts of the city staff, he doesn’t believe such a law can be drafted in a way “that it’s reasonably likely to achieve its purpose.”

Boyd agreed that “we know there’s a problem” with teen drinking, but said passing the ordinance is not a solution. “I’ve noticed that we keep passing more things that don’t work,” he said. “And I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you show me that this is really going to work…I’m not going to vote for it.”

Council members called for three changes, reordering the wording that addressed the penalty for violations, removing confusing language regarding taking reasonable steps to prevent a minor from consuming alcohol, and a revision of the penalty for the first offense. As written, first offenders could choose between taking a course at their own expense or paying a $1,000 fine. Iseman insisted that the point is to educate the offenders and that the class be a mandatory penalty, with a fine of $1,000 to be assessed in the event an offender simply refuses to show up for the course.

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