Voting booths in Bethel ought to come with revolving doors this year.
After three months of confusion and second-guessing over residents' decision to lift a decades-old ban on liquor sales, the city is preparing to hold another booze vote Jan. 19. Then yet another alcohol election is planned for later in the year.
The January vote -- advisory only -- is intended to find out what people really wanted when they tossed out the liquor prohibition in the southwest Alaska hub in October.
Were they sick of the state recording how much alcohol they ordered from Anchorage and restricting individuals to less than a keg of beer a month? Or did they actually want bars and liquor stores to open?
The city council plans to use the advisory vote as a roadmap as it decides whether to oppose a growing number of liquor license applications.
Meantime, a group opposing local liquor sales altogether successfully petitioned for a third election, likely to be held in the spring, asking residents to again outlaw the sale of alcohol.
Behold booze politics in rural Alaska.
"Our heads are just kind of going in circles out here," said Bethel Mayor Joe Klejka, a physician who favors a return to "damp" status for the city. That means you can order a limited amount of liquor but can't buy it in town.
Bethel was the largest damp community in Alaska until residents voted 615-523 on Oct. 6 to go "wet."
Now there's no monthly shipping limit and Bethel businesses are free to apply for liquor licenses from the state.
In a town that has routinely rejected attempts to loosen liquor laws, and that has long dealt with high rates of alcohol-related violence, accidents and neglect, the election results caught Allen Joseph by surprise. Alcohol sale had been illegal ever since he moved to Bethel from the Yup'ik village of Hooper Bay in the 1980s. Bethel police have said nine of 10 crimes involved alcohol.
"In the past, votes like this, or propositions to go wet, always crashed and burned," he said. Joseph figures some voters who favored damp status stayed home in October, assuming they didn't need to vote.
Others may have been confused. Proponents of the change portrayed the vote as a strike against burdensome, arbitrary state oversight, rather than switching the city from damp to wet.
But that's what happened.
Bethel is now eligible for two bars, two liquor stores, four alcohol-serving restaurants and a slew of other liquor licenses based on its population of 5,600, said Shirley Gifford, director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Four local restaurants plus the biggest store in town, Alaska Commercial Co., have already applied for the right to sell alcohol.
By November, the monthly shipping restrictions to Bethel disappeared. People could order as much alcohol as they wanted.
Local leaders are still gauging the effects.
At first the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. saw a spike in alcohol-related emergency room visits, said chief executive Gene Peltola. Then E.R. visits dipped to pre-November levels and have since leveled off, he said.
Klejka hasn't seen signs of more liquor in Bethel since the vote, he said, although he hears the price of bootlegged vodka plummeted by half.
"(Bootleggers) can just order however much they want now," he said. "But they've got to sell more to make the same profit."
Police report no obvious increase in alcohol-related crime within the city.
"It hasn't been much of a change, if at all," said Lt. Andre Achee, a 20-year veteran of the Bethel Police Department.
Instead, troopers tell him it's the surrounding villages that are seeing fallout from the vote, Achee said.
Bethel is a shopping, medical and social service hub for dozens of smaller communities that have voted to ban liquor. This time of year villagers travel to the city on snowmachines and four-wheelers along the frozen Kuskokwim River.
Thursday in Napaskiak, seven miles south of Bethel, village public safety officer Greg Larson prepared a mix of whitefish, rice and dog food for his sled dog team.
Larson recently helped authorities track a stolen Bethel Police Department SUV as it sped along the river ice, according to the Tundra Drums.
Since the liquor vote he's been seeing more bottles of R&R whiskey in the village, he said in a phone interview.
Larson conceded the annual infusion of Permanent Fund dividend money may have played a role, but this winter it seems like there's more liquor than usual, he said. "It's more alcohol. More underage kids drinking."
HOLD OFF ON LIQUOR LICENSES
Before the October vote, Bethel had been damp for more than 30 years. Petitioners protesting what they saw as ever-narrowing state regulation successfully pushed to go "wet," or unrestricted, after then-Gov. Sarah Palin proposed a plan to cut alcohol importation limits in half.
After the election, some of the same petitioners immediately began lobbying against liquor license applications emerging from local restaurants. The federally recognized tribal government in Bethel passed a resolution on Dec. 23 opposing liquor sales in the city.
Citing high rates of domestic violence, child abuse, crime, accidental deaths and alcohol-related suicides, the Orutsararmuit Native Council described alcohol as the "leading disruption of lives in our area."
But some people who voted to go wet really did want the chance to buy a case of beer on the way home. Others liked the idea of ordering wine at a restaurant but didn't want package stores.
City leaders were unsure whether to object to the licenses. What was it voters wanted?
The council called for the Jan. 19 advisory election, offering a menu of choices.
The ballot asks voters what kind of liquor license applications, if any, the city should support. It also asks if the city should try and open a liquor store of its own -- a potential cash-source for local government.
The city didn't have an estimate last week for how much it will cost to print ballots, pay election workers and hire Yup'ik interpreters for the elections.
Meantime, the council has asked the ABC Board to wait as long as possible before granting any liquor licenses, though it will have to decide whether to oppose one of the restaurant applications before the first special election.
Gifford said the ABC Board will wait, though it's required to make decisions within 90 days of an application.
"We hate to see people get licenses and then a couple weeks later they don't get to have the license," she said. "And then they've got a shipment of alcohol beverages and they've got it stocked and that wouldn't be good either."
THIRD VOTE IN 7 MONTHS
Another group of Bethel residents isn't waiting for the advisory vote. They just want the city to go damp again.
Joseph was one of nearly 30 petitioners who collected 544 valid signatures calling to reverse the October vote.
"Personally, I've seen more drunks on the streets," he said Thursday. "My wife said she's seen people that usually don't drink under the influence."
The city certified the back-to-damp petition on Monday but hasn't set a date for the election.
City Clerk Lori Strickler is recommending a timeline that could put the question to voters in late April or early May, she said, allowing time to prepare for yet another election.
It would be the third citywide alcohol vote within seven months.
"I'm at the point of pulling my hair out right now," said Strickler, whose office organizes the votes and is preparing for the advisory election.
She may get a break soon.
If voters agree to reinstate the ban on alcohol sales, state law says Bethel can't hold an election to loosen those rules for two years, the ABC Board says.