DABC debate hitting peak before Legislature
Ryan Summerlin January 10, 2012
Restaurant owners, community leaders, industry officials people are tuning in to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control debate as the legislative session quickly approaches.
Since last year’s department scandals, when Director Dennis Kellen was accused of giving $370,000 worth of DABC business to his son, legislators have been deliberating the future of the department and the future of alcohol sales in Utah. And though change for the DABC seems imminent, just how far those changes will extend is still up in the air.
"We would support changes to the liquor laws that make it easier for restaurants to get liquor," said Hans Fuegi, the Utah Restaurant Association President and owner of Park City’s Grub Steak Restaurant. "Why wouldn’t we?"
But actually passing new regulations may have its own risks, Fuegi added.
"I think some people see an opening or opportunity because the DABC is in some turmoil," he said. "Their train of thought is ‘Maybe now is a good time to look at how alcohol business is being conducted.’ But I’m not convinced legislators will be really looking at such dramatic changes without knowing how DABC will be functioning in the future first."
The risk Fuegi sees potentially playing out is one where the legislature pushes back against such dramatic suggestions of change, which may result in no changes at all.
So what seems most likely to happen at this point?
Francine Giani, the interim executive director of the DABC, said when the session begins, it begins.
"We anticipate that they will move forward with one plan or another," Giani said. "…The role of executive director is to carry out policies passed by legislature. I’ll be watching just like everyone else."
In Park City, rumors have circulated that meetings between restaurant and bar owners were focusing on a ballot option for privatization of liquor sales.
As far as restaurants were concerned there were groups on two sides of the fence, Fuegi said. On the one side, business owners feel now is the time to pursue privatization. Others feel it was lofty goal for the state, a goal that would take more than some shaken faith in the DABC to implement.
"Truly privatizing?" Fuegi asked. "It will be a long time before the state lets go of the control it has."
That hasn’t stopped people from coming forward with ideas to fix the way alcohol is run in Utah. Utah Senate and House minority leaders, Ross Romero and David Litvack, submitted a letter to Utah Governor Gary Herbert in November addressing concerns with the DABC and recently held a Twitter town hall meeting on the subject. The Utah Democrats plan to put their own bill forward before the legislature begins.
In Ogden, Rep. Ryan Wilcox said he plans to introduce a bill that would remove the state from wholesale liquor completely. A legislature-funded report analyzing the DABC and liquor sales in Utah recommended privatization, contending that it could save the state money. And Gov. Herbert was listening. Crediting his free-market ideals, in a press conference Herbert said privatization would be a discussion point for this year’s legislative session.
But some businesses remain unconvinced.
"When you take on the state, it’s an expensive proposition," said Park City restaurant owner Steve McComb. " I love Utah. I love so many things about it. It’s been a great place to raise my children. But could things be improved? Absolutely. Will it change in my lifetime? Not likely."
Beyond prices and store hours and liquor availability, McComb said one of his biggest personal issues with the DABC and why he’s advocating privatization is because of how he has been treated by department employees in the past.
"You’re not a customer," he said. "You have no other place to go, and the employees are underpaid and undertrained."
The first time McComb bought liquor, he remembered picking out the liquor and walking up to the register to find the cashier on a personal call that she didn’t end.
"It felt like an eternity," McComb said. "She never said sorry. She just went on talking about a party. And when I told her she was being rude, she called me rude and reported me to her manager."
McComb said it dawned on him that he wasn’t seen as a customer to the DABC.
Wine broker Liz Lister, who works with many Park City business owners, says the problem goes farther up the ladder than the girl behind the checkout counter. Lister has been trying to sell the products she represents in Utah for four-and-a-half-years.
She claims the DABC uses a system to purchase alcohol for the stores that doesn’t encourage newcomers.
"I just picked up my mail before Christmas and I got back submissions to the DABC from 2009," Lister said. "They were rejected sales. Is that efficiency? No, it’s a ‘good old boy’ network, which is great if you’re already here."
"Now is the perfect opportunity to lay down the law and say this is ridiculous," she added. " If people don’t collectively work together on this, nothing is going to change."
No matter what side of the fence, those in hospitality and tourism already have their ear to the ground listening for what comes next. What that is, is anyone’s bet.
"We have found that we have to be persistent and keep talking and pushing," Fuegi said, "but we don’t think it pays off to be overly aggressive."