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Published August 22 2012

Odds stacked against stiffer alcohol laws, Fargo police chief says

FARGO - While he doesn’t believe the political will is there to make it happen, Fargo’s police chief still wants to see alcohol reforms, such as limits on how steeply local bars can discount drinks.

In spite of recent high-profile drunken driving tragedies in the region, he’s not convinced lawmakers have the follow-through to enact meaningful changes.

“The cynic in me says everybody now is going sit up on the edge of their seat and they’re going to say these are tragic, tragic situations, and we should do something about it,” said Chief Keith Ternes. “I would be very interested to see if that same passion is there from those individuals three months, six months, eight months from now.”

Questions about alcohol laws and enforcement have moved to the front burner following a head-on collision near Jamestown, N.D., that killed a West Fargo family and a drunken driver who crossed the median on Interstate 94.

The incident, along with a national anti-drinking and driving campaign that runs into early September, sparked hope in some circles that previously stalled efforts to toughen up alcohol laws would find new life.

Locally, one of Fargo’s highest profile pushes to tackle the issue was the hotly debated proposal to curb “extreme” drink specials like all-you-can-drink ladies nights and penny-beer offerings. Ternes said such specials, which often are aimed at women, can give rise to a host of problems ranging from drunken driving to sexual assault.

In late 2010 and early 2011, Fargo’s Liquor Control Board took up the issue, which ultimately went nowhere.

City Auditor Steve Sprague, who sits on the liquor board, said the issue didn’t have political legs then, and probably doesn’t today.

“I don’t see that happening,” he said.

He said an effective plan would have to include Moorhead and West Fargo. Otherwise, Fargo businesses would balk at the prospect of yielding a marketing edge to competitors in neighboring cities.

“Everyone’s pretty much in agreement it would have to be cross-jurisdictional,” he said.

Ternes agreed, saying he isn’t again pushing for a new ordinance because there’s little support for it outside of law enforcement.

“I still think that there’s some merit in possibly exploring this at some point down the road,” he said.

David Ebinger, Moorhead’s police chief, said he thinks Minnesota’s overserving law is strong enough to handle the issue without additional regulations. He also said the city doesn’t have the same bar crowds as Fargo’s busiest spots.

“We’re fairly comfortable in our ability to control this,” he said.

West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen said “it’s a fine line” between free enterprise and curbing excessive use.

He said he hasn’t talked with Ternes recently or discussed the matter with city leaders, but he’d listen if the issue came up again.

For now, Fargo police have focused on having an increased presence at bars with steep specials.

“We want people to know that the police will be watching,” Ternes said.

He said only a handful of bars around town merit such scrutiny, though he wouldn’t identify them by name.

The enormous Hub bar and nightclub complex has perhaps Fargo’s most popular deep discount special: a $5 all-you-can-drink special for women on Thursday nights that attracts hundreds of patrons.

Dan Vogel, The Hub’s general manager, declined to comment on the issue.

Other specials that fit Ternes’ designation as extreme include a $5 all-you-can-drink ladies night at JT Cigarro on Wednesdays, a free ladies night at Big D’s on Wednesdays and a “pay the date” special at the Old Broadway in which beers cost the date of the month in cents.

Owners from those bars couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502