It’s been four decades since Bethel had a liquor store, and for now that status will continue. The Bethel City Council voted Tuesday to protest two liquor store license applications from the Bethel Native Corporation’s Bethel Spirits and the Alaska Commercial Company. The debate now leaves city hall as citizens gear up for a new advisory vote.
Council members cited the loud public outcry against having easier access to alcohol, a five-year-old public vote, as well as violations or possible violations of rules against being too close to churches and schools. When the debate entered the weeds, Council member Chuck Herman added a line to the resolution saying the exact distance not the issue.
“I just want to make it very clear our protest stands based us as a community being opposed to it, and not based on any technical violations,” said Herman.
The vote was 4 to 3. Herman, along with council members Fansler, Albertson, and Springer voted to protest the BNC application. All but mayor Rick Robb voted to protest the AC store, which is located across the street from two churches.
The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board will take up applications this July. They are required to honor protests from governing bodies unless they are found to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.
Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman insisted the proposed store is legally situated, and argued that what Bethel has now is not working.
“The presence of illegal sales is undeniable and not a cent of the sales is taxed. We have quite possibly created the most unhealthy environment imaginable. Unlimited importation and no mechanism for legal sales. Allowing for the issuance of a liquor license enhances control and regulation over the current system of chaos,” said Hoffman.
As Bethel is wet, any business can apply for a license and people can import as much as they want. More than five years since the last advisory vote on liquor sales the council will ask again in October. That’s the guidance that council member Zach Fansler wants.
“I think the proper form for the pulse is what we have before us, the democracy we have is a vote. I think it’s important that we go forth right now with the information we have now and protest, and let the people empower themselves, make their decision as a community and move forward from that point when we find out what the people want,” said Fansler.
Last time, in 2010, citizens rejected the idea of five types of liquor licenses, with 63 percent opposed and 37 percent in favor of a liquor store. The most popular option was a city-run store, which is not feasibly with Bethel’s current status. The vote this fall will not ask that question, but it will ask citizens to approve a 12 percent alcohol tax.
Mayor Rick Robb supports local sales and said the recent widespread vocal opposition may not be fully representative.
“Whatever happens, I think a lot more people are going to vote for some form of legal sales than they did five years ago,” said Robb.
Robb and the council will have their answer when the public votes on October 6th.