City passes ‘social host’ ordinance

Published 6:47 am Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The City of Austin will now punish people who host parties where minors consume alcohol.

City council on Monday night unanimously passed a “social host” ordinance — a decision that garnered a round of applause from a crowd of supporters.

With the new ordinance, Austin joins roughly 30 other cities and counties in Minnesota with such a law on the books.

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It means that people who allow minors to drink — without taking steps to prevent it — will be slapped with misdemeanors.

There are exceptions for religious observations or instances when a minor consumes alcohol with only his or her parents around.

Considering there is no comparable state law, supporters have said social host ordinances give local law enforcement officials more “teeth” in fighting underage consumption.

In Austin, the support came largely from the Austin Area Drug Task Force, a group comprised of various local leaders that drafted the ordinance.

Thor Bergland, a teacher at Austin High School and member of the task force, addressed council Monday and said why the law is so important for children’s safety.

With a number of Ellis Middle School students in the crowd behind him, Bergland said the ordinance can be a valuable “tool.”

“Our goal is to protect the kids,” he said.

Austin’s ordinance was influenced by a similar law adopted in Albert Lea last December.

Former mayor and current task force member Bonnie Rietz said previously that it’s been effective there.

“Yes, it’s working for them,” Rietz said.

Police chief Paul Philipp, who is also on the task force, said he too has heard Albert Lea officials praise their new, tougher law.

Philipp said underage drinking is a problem in Austin but this ordinance will allow parents and others a better way to fight it.

“They work,” he said of social host laws.

However, such ordinances sometimes become hotly debated, with questions of how to prove responsibility and whether the laws may be too invasive into peoples’ homes coming into play.

“It’s been a controversial ordinance in other communities,” Philipp said.

But Rietz said the potential reward — saving the lives of young men and women who may endanger themselves by drinking — is worth any criticism.

“If you think of the consequences,” she said, “the argument (against) really diminishes.”