Alaska News

Compass: Alaska Commerce commissioner no friend to alcohol board enforcement

Until my retirement last month, I served for five and a half years as the Executive Director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board with the last two after the board was moved to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED) from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) for supposedly "administrative purposes only."

Unfortunately, it was no surprise to me to hear that the initial job description for my replacement drafted by the DCCED Commissioner's office sought to change the mission of the board to "ensure the responsible growth of the beverage industry" rather than the enforcement of the state's alcoholic beverage control statutes. This was no low level misunderstanding. Although my decision to retire was in largest part to assist my daughter with her business, since the board was placed under DCCED there have been many instances of interference by the commissioner's office that limited my ability to effectively do my job. I believe people have a right to know.

For example, just this last April my request to attend the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police meeting in Fairbanks was put on hold by the Commissioner's office until I produced a "business friendly plan" for the activities of the Board. It is critical that the Board coordinate with local law enforcement as they also have a mandate to enforce alcohol laws in return for receiving license fees from their jurisdictions. It quickly became clear that my efforts to attend this meeting would be fruitless and I advised the commissioner's office of my belief. But of course I was told that the commissioner wanted the plan anyway.

The plan I wrote and presented to the commissioner and her deputy in person on April 22 detailed the many ongoing efforts of the board to work positively with the industry. They included extensive training of current and new licensees in legal requirements on both a regular and by-request basis. We also mail, annually, to all 1800 plus licensees, "born on" stickers and calendars so they remember when to renew their licenses and include a brochure on responsible alcohol service, all produced by the Cabaret Hotel Restaurant and Retailers Association (CHARR). In addition, licensees are given opportunities to correct compliance issues when identified during inspections.

The board is also working with a broad-based stakeholders group, including industry, to recommend improvements to the state alcohol control statutes. The plan identified extra efforts with necessary additional resources. I was told this was only "a good start".

A study by the University of Alaska recommended compliance checks on licensees every six months. Current resources only accommodate one check per year at best and too often only one every other year. Yet CHARR continues to advocate for more of the Board's resources to be diverted to education instead of enforcement.

Experience has proven that compliance checks result in compliance. Compliance rates go down as the number of checks decrease.

During the debate in 2010 over moving the board to DCCED from Public Safety, I spoke with nearly every legislator or their staff. I shared my belief that the transfer would be a serious mistake. It is critical that sales to minors, over-serving and the use of untrained servers be kept to a minimum to protect public health and safety. Since 2003 the Board had worked effectively under DPS to achieve these results without the interference I experienced under DCCED.

Also concerned about the organizational move, Governor Parnell himself wrote letters to key legislators as well as his commissioners stating that "I assume the ABC Board and law enforcement will work together effectively, ensuring enforcement and oversight will not be diminished." I can only assume that the governor is unaware that DCCED is actively assisting CHARR in changing the direction of the board's efforts.

I had the pleasure to meet many owners of licensed establishments who want nothing more than to operate their business in a lawful manner. The overall success rate of licensees passing compliance checks stands at an impressive 89 percent. However, without regulation, as in any industry, people naturally become complacent in areas deemed unimportant by authorities.

While the departments of Health and Social Services and Public Safety are spending millions of dollars combating alcohol abuse through prevention, education, and enforcement, the DCCED is essentially working hard to promote it.

Shirley Cote is a former executive director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.