I've heard that the judges are in the pockets of the liquor stores.
"Well, that's false," Hill says. "These are independent judges. I would definitely disagree with that."
Is the ABC available for a price? Could campaign money be filtered in such a way that the ABC could effectively be purchased by a group that wants a license?
"No," Hill says. "No. Are you asking me if we can be bribed? The ABC is a state regulating agency. We're a law-enforcing agency. Our director is appointed by the governor, and everyone else is a civil servant. So, no, we are not for sale. Something that a lot of community members don't understand is this: Our department, being a state agency, is 100 percent regulated by statutes that the legislature put into effect. We don't come up with our own laws. That's done through the formal process."
Okay. So let's get back to this census tract 79.01. There should be 6 bars there, but 55 exist? Can't you take away some of those licenses?
Hill says, "The only way for us to revoke an ABC license is, one, there are yearly renewal fees that are due, and they either pay them or they don't. And once again, our fees are mandated by statute. We can't just arbitrarily change them. It takes an act of the government."
It wouldn't be due cause to look at the situation and say, "There are 55 licenses here and there should only be 6," and then to take some away?
"We have no statutory authority to do that," Hill says. "There's a grandfather clause that exists, from before the statute concerning undue concentration came into effect. And so the only way for us to revoke a license is if an establishment doesn't pay the renewal fees, or, through administrative disciplinary action. And that's a progressive discipline situation. So let's say someone sells to a minor. For the first offense, we do not have the authority to revoke their license. We have a three-strikes law. If the establishment sells alcohol to a minor three times within 36 consecutive months, then after the third violation, the department may seek revocation. Historically, on average, on the third offense, we do go for revocation of the license. Same with selling to an obviously intoxicated patron. We catch them, they go through disciplinary action -- pay a fine, serve a suspension, etc. -- and then we monitor them more closely. And multiple offenses can result in loss of a license."
Well, for instance, one of the 55 licenses in 79.01 used to belong to Margarita Rocks. And they closed, so that was an opportunity to knock the number down to 54.
"With Margarita Rocks," Hill says, "they sold their license to a new entity. It's called a person transfer. We do not have statutory authority to deny a person transfer if the new person going in meets the qualifications. We do have authority to add conditions, which we did, in this case."
So the ABC can only enforce and regulate the laws that are laid down by the state legislature.
"Correct," Hill says. "We try to work closely with local law enforcement, and with the politicians and the communities, but, basically, we are bound by statute, and we're given our authority through that statute. We don't have that much discretion when it comes to our statutory authority."
How is a new liquor license issued? What's the process?
"Say it's a brand-new location," Hill begins. "Someone comes in, and they have to fill out a thorough application package, which includes all of their personal information, because we do a criminal-history run. It includes all of their financial information, because we investigate all of their finances to insure that the money is coming from legal sources and there's no hidden ownership. We send out notices to the local police department, and we send the police department copies of the applications. We basically say, 'Here's the location, here's what they want, here's the statistics for this location, do you protest?' We also send out a mailing to all residents within 100 feet. We send out a notification to all consideration points within 600 feet, which are churches, schools, hospitals, etc. They have to have the zoning approved by the local zoning authority. They also have to put a notice in their window announcing that they're applying for a license, and they have to publish the same notice three times in the newspaper, and they have to do a mailing to all residents within 500 feet of their location. There's a lot of notification that goes out to the members of the community and the local law enforcement. So even though we are the legislators, and we make the final decision on whether a license is issued or it isn't, per statute, we take in the information from the community, zoning, and police department, and they all have a say in the process. And then, if everything looks good to that point, we go out and physically inspect the location. So it's quite a thorough investigation."
I understand a new type of problem is this recent phenomenon of restaurants that turn into nightclubs.
"Again," says Hill, "those establishments have to follow guidelines, and if they do, then there's nothing in their licensing that says they can't do that. For example, they have to sell food during normal meal hours, and the sale of alcohol is secondary to the sale of food. After those criteria are met, there's nothing inherent in the license that prohibits them from turning into a nightclub-type of atmosphere after normal dinner hours. We can put restrictions on new licenses that will help. For instance, we can say, 'Okay, you're a restaurant? Great. At least 50 percent of your total gross sales have to be food, no live entertainment or dancing, and you have to close at midnight.' But with already existing licenses, we can't go back and put restrictions on. We can only do that through disciplinary action."