Whose party is it?

New ordinance targets hosts when minors are drinking

The social-host ordinance “underscores our shared responsibility, shared accountability and high expectations that together we can achieve a safer community,” Chico State University President Paul Zingg told council members Tuesday.

The social-host ordinance “underscores our shared responsibility, shared accountability and high expectations that together we can achieve a safer community,” Chico State University President Paul Zingg told council members Tuesday.

PHOTO by robert speer

Chico police will soon have what has been described as “another tool in their toolbox” to control underage drinking: a “social-host ordinance” that targets the people responsible for parties at which minors are drinking.

At its regular meeting Tuesday (March 4), the Chico City Council voted 6-0, with Mary Goloff absent, to approve the introductory reading of the ordinance. It will return for a final reading and vote at an upcoming meeting.

Whether it will work—a matter of some debate—remains to be seen. The consensus on the council was that, given the number of young people who have died in recent years as a result of drinking too much booze, something had to be done.

As Councilwoman Ann Schwab put it, “Maintaining the status quo won’t work anymore.” The ordinance is designed “to curb the availability of alcohol to minors so that we have fewer emergencies and fewer deaths,” she said.

Although one original goal was to compel landlords to police their rentals more intensively, under threat of being fined, the council’s Internal Affairs Committee earlier had voted to drop that provision from the ordinance. Now only landlords who have been “put on notice,” in Assistant City Attorney Roger Wilson’s words, that residences they own have been the site of illegal gatherings can be ticketed.

According to Wilson’s written report to the council, the ordinance targets “those persons with the greatest control over, and ability to control, unlawful gatherings: persons who allow, permit, or host such events”—whoever’s throwing the party, in other words.

The fine for a first offense would be $500. It would go up to $1,000 for any subsequent offenses within a 12-month period.

Chico State President Paul Zingg was the first person from the audience to speak. Reminding council members of the Community Action Summit, which was held in February 2013 following the alcohol-overdose death of Chico State student Mason Sumnicht, he said now was the time “to walk the talk.”

The university community, he said, is trying to shift the focus away from “don’ts”—“don’t do this, don’t do that”—to put it on “more positive affirmations” of “wellness and safety,” and the ordinance would be a helpful tool in that effort.

The university’s vice president for student affairs, Drew Calandrella, next said the ordinance would help students avoid the “law of unintended consequences.” They didn’t plan “to have 300 to 500 people in their front yard. They didn’t plan to have fights, or assaults and sexual assaults. They didn’t plan to have someone die. They didn’t plan to have the police show up and someone throw a bottle. They didn’t plan.”

The ordinance, Calandrella said, would encourage them to plan ahead to avoid such unintended consequences.

Others weren’t sure the ordinance was enforceable. Student Troy Galletly said he could “guarantee that nobody [at a party] would step up to the plate to accept a $500 ticket.” And what about minors who sneak into a party, who might have a flask concealed on their person, or who drank before they got to the party?

Another student, Mat Bacior, said he was “slightly disheartened to see yet another ordinance directed at students.” (The city passed an anti-noise ordinance in 2012.) The council was overreaching, he argued, and should look instead at education about the causes of alcohol abuse.

Other students supported the ordinance, however. “I’m so tired of kids throwing away their lives,” said Miguel Ruiz, who added that he hesitated recommending Chico State to his younger sister, fearing for her safety here.

Evan Thibeau, a student assistant at the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center, said that when his hometown of Pacific Grove passed a social-host ordinance, it immediately tamped down the party scene.

“We can’t accept the status quo,” Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen said. “We need to take some sort of action.” He then moved for approval.

In other council news: It soon may cost more to add a room to your house—or build a subdivision. For the first time in nine years, the city is looking at its development fee schedule to bring it into line with the actual costs of processing permits, plans checks and such.

A report prepared by consultant Chad Wohlford indicates that the city’s actual annual cost for processing building applications is $1.1 million more than it is taking in, which means the general fund (i.e., taxpayers) is subsidizing development.

It’s a complex issue—raising fees could put a chilling effect on construction, for example, and some developments have sufficient public benefit to warrant being subsidized. The council asked Wohlford to work with staff and developers to come up with a new fee schedule that takes such variables into consideration.

Finally, the council gave the thumbs up to a request from the Butte Environmental Council to use a city-owned parcel at the corner of West Eighth and Nord avenues, next to the Oak Way Park, for a community garden. The approval is conditional—the city may one day build a fire station there.