Bethel Appeals ABC Rejection of Liquor License Protest, Could Bring Local Option Decision to Vote

Earlier this year, a capacity crowd, largely opposed to local liquor sales, spoke for nearly four hours before the council. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK - Bethel)
Earlier this year, a capacity crowd, largely opposed to local liquor sales, spoke for nearly four hours before the council. (Photo by Dean Swope, KYUK – Bethel)

The Bethel City Council is appealing the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s rejection of their protest of the Bethel Native Corporation’s package liquor store application. The council met in executive session Thursday evening for three and a half hours.

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The ABC board on July 1st called the city’s protest of the proposed Bethel Spirits license “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable”, sparking outrage from the council. The board is required to honor protest unless it meets those criteria. Mayor Rick Robb says he’s personally in favor of local sales.

“But I do not think the protest was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. I think the protest was valid, based on community standards, debate, process, public hearings, past votes, planning on future votes. All of those things were taken into consideration. The protest was very well thought out,” said Robb.

The board has not decided on the status of the license and plans a public hearing in Bethel after the October election in which citizens will again advise the council on whether they want to see a liquor license of some variety. And in that same election, it’s possible that voters could choose to go back to local option with a city-run store.

In the council’s Tuesday meeting, they could introduce a move to hold a binding vote in October on the possibility of opening city-run liquor store through local option. Councilman Chuck Herman is sponsoring the action and cited local control.

“Especially now with this uncertainty over what we can do as a community, I think that is what at this moment forced my hand. I don’t believe we have the power any more. It doesn’t seem like the ABC board is going to uphold our ability to control our own community. I think the only way we can get that power back is by going towards this local option with the ability to have a city-run liquor store,” said Herman.

Before it goes to voters, the measure must make it through council. The city did away with local option in 2009. Citizens in a 2010 advisory vote rejected several types of liquor licenses and the city successfully protested several licenses. Citizens again rejected going back into local option in May of that year.

For now, October is shaping up to be a busy month and the timing of the city’s appeal is uncertain. The board hasn’t formally issued their finding to the city, which they need before proceeding. Leif Albertson is Bethel’s Vice Mayor.

“The stage we’re at right now is we directed counsel to appeal the protest, and they’re going to put together what they feel is a good appeal. That’s going to involve legal research,” said Albertson.

Councilman Zach Fansler says he wants to get the conversation rolling in advance of the fall vote.

“The last thing we want is people to be making these decisions thinking they’re going to get something they’re not going to get out of it. I think there is a lot of half-truths, or 75 percent of the facts, but not the whole story and you think you might be able to do this or that. I think it’s incredibly important and I think it’s going to take up a lot of everyone’s time to make sure everyone is as informed as possible and knows exactly what they’re choosing when they’re voting,” said Fansler.

That vote is October 6th. Separately, 17 months after the city launched anexpensive third-party investigation into contracts, purchasing, and personnel issues, there’s still more to discuss. Michael Gatti, a former city attorney and the man who led the third-party 2014 city investigation was at the meeting. Mayor Robb gave a brief update following executive session.

“The council received an update from our legal team about the investigation, considered litigation and other options. We will continue to look at ways to improve operations of the city. The city will address some of these issues in upcoming public meetings,” said Robb.

Another executive session item concerned potential litigation regarding real estate taxes. The city’s next meeting is Tuesday night.