Utah liquor board lacks industry representation

August 13, 2011 - 4:59 PM
Dry Liquor Board

In this Aug. 8, 2011 photo, Del Vance, owner of Salt Lake City’s Beerhive Pub, pours a beer in Salt Lake City. Vance and other bar owners in Utah complain that state officials and lawmakers make it too difficult for tourists and other patrons to imbibe, offering limited liquor licenses and instituting archaic and restrictive laws. (AP Pphoto/Brian Skoloff)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — All of Utah's state boards and commissions that oversee licensing, permits and disciplinary action include industry representatives who bring expertise and experience to the process, except one — the state liquor board, according to an Associated Press review.

The Air Quality Board includes representatives from mining, agricultural and fuel industries. The Real Estate Commission includes realtors. The Solid and Hazardous Waste Board includes operators of garbage facilities. The state Funeral Services Board is run by three funeral home owners and two members of the public.

The board of the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, by contrast, is made up of three teetotaler Mormons and one self-described social drinker, none with any experience in the hospitality industry. In fact, state law won't allow anyone with even tangential ties to the industry to be involved in the process.

There are dozens of other state commissions and advisory councils on which industry plays a role. In most cases, state statute requires it.

Lawmakers have argued each board should include members from within the industry it regulates to provide valuable expertise for often complex issues. They have made no such argument for the alcohol board in a state where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which forbids its members from drinking, has historically had significant influence over state liquor policy. The board has operated this way since the end of Prohibition.

Bar and restaurant owners say the entire process is skewed to try to keep people from imbibing in Utah, and it's a blow to business.

Del Vance, owner of Salt Lake City's Beerhive Pub, says there's such disdain for alcohol consumption by state lawmakers that he doesn't think having an industry representative on the board would make any difference.

"It would work for about five minutes, until the person suggested something positive and got tossed out," Vance said. Lawmakers don't want "to make it easy, convenient or beneficial for the tourism industry. Their mission is to make it as difficult as possible to get a drink."

Recent changes to state law even prohibit immediate family of alcohol control board members, including children, from working as busboys or waiters in any establishment that serves spirits.

While current board members agree the process could be more effective, and at the very least perceived to be fair, if an industry representative were included, they note that decision is up to the Legislature.

"It seems logical that you would want industry represented," said Jeff Wright, the only drinker on the board. "You need to be careful . but having that voice would be a good thing."

The new board chairman, Dr. Richard Sperry, agreed, if just to create a more favorable public perception.

"It wouldn't hurt to have that perspective. There is an awful lot of distrust, so anything that could be done to make it appear that people are being treated fairly would help," Sperry said.

However, he added, board members don't push personal agendas.

"It's never sorted out as a struggle between those who drink and those who don't drink," Sperry said.

State Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who has sponsored most liquor legislation in recent years in a state that has some of the more restrictive alcohol laws in the country, said it would be "historic" to alter the board's make-up.

"We have such a long history that I'm not sure I could even say whether it would work," said Valentine, who steered a bill into law this year that bans bars and restaurants from offering happy hour or daily drink specials.

Utah liquor laws are less restrictive now after then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. loosened them by pushing for legislation in 2008 and 2009 that removed requirements forcing patrons to buy memberships before entering any bar. The change was made to improve Utah's image with tourists, but legislators made it clear they weren't loosening laws simply to make it easier for people to drink.

Since then, lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert, who took office after Huntsman, have focused on passing laws to push a "social agenda" that limits overconsumption and encourages people to eat while drinking. They have repeatedly opposed efforts to increase the number of bar licenses or allow beer with a higher alcohol content to be sold in grocery stores.

So while some changes over the years have made Utah's liquor laws less confusing for tourists, they've done little to help the hospitality industry.

That has frustrated proprietors such as Kelly Shiotani, owner of Dojo, a downtown Salt Lake City restaurant, who feels ignored and slighted by legislators and the alcohol board.

Dojo was designed as a bistro, where people could dine casually or simply relax with a drink. But Shiotani has been waiting months to get a bar license, so for now patrons have to buy food if they just want a casual drink and the concoction must be mixed out of sight.

"The discouraging thing is there isn't any rhyme or reason to who gets a license," Shiotani said. "I don't know if a member from the hospitality industry (on the board) would even help ... It might be like spitting in the ocean."