Bethel Advances The Possibility of A City-Run Liquor Store

Bethel City Hall. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.
Bethel City Hall. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.

The Bethel City Council last night took one step towards a possible return to local option status. By a 4-to-3 vote, they introduced an ordinance, which, if passed by council next month would let voters would decide in October whether to allow local alcohol sales solely through a city-run liquor store.

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A possible vote on local option comes as the city appeals the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s rejection of their formal protest of Bethel Native Corporation’s liquor store application. The surprise move by the ABC board led Council Member Chuck Herman to propose having the city be the only liquor seller in town.

“It put our status as a community into question, it’s unclear if now we’re going to be able to protest anything at all. It’s unclear if the advisory vote is going to matter. Those are the reasons. And secondary to that, we’ll be able to fund more police if necessary, we’ll have extra revenue to work with,” said Herman.

Local option includes provisions for additional local control, like limiting sales to residents of Bethel, that aren’t possible under private sales. The state liquor board will be here in October for a public hearing, following a new alcohol advisory vote expected to influence whether the council protests future liquor license. But that’s not guaranteed as four council seats are up for election.

Bethel resident Dave Trantham spoke out against the council advancing local option.

“If the people of Bethel want to go back into local option, they can start the same type of initiative that we had to get out of local option. It should be coming from us peasants, the grassroots, it should not be coming from you,” said Trantham.

Council Member Heather Pike reminded the council of what drove citizens out of of local option including the limits on importation and a database tracking purchases.

“I myself, I was tired of being treated like a criminal. I felt like I was a criminal when we were under local option, like ‘Momma can I go to the store?,’” said Pike.

Bethel left local option in 2009 and citizens voted again in 2010 to stay out while still rejecting local sales. That developed a liquor status that allows for unlimited importations and no local sales. It’s a middle ground that some call a compromise and others say creates a bootleggers paradise. A local option vote would change that reality. The path to the Bethels future status remaines uncharted.

Vice Mayor Leif Albertson was concerned about a very complicated ballot on October 6th.

“If someone’s first choice is to stay the way we are now, I’m not sure how they should they vote on this in the election. Should they vote no, no, no, no, yes local option or no, no, no, no, no local option and then possibly end up with private sales which are less restrictive?” said Albertson.

Gearing up for October, Council Member Zach Fansler has lost faith in in the board that has the final word on liquor licenses.

“Will they allow us to keep that status? We don’t know, they are judge, jury and executioner. They’re going to come out in October and they’re going to be the arbiter of what is best for Bethel. They have overstepped their bounds, they have put us as a community at odds with one another. They should never, ever, ever, have thought that was ok,” said Fansler.

A public hearing is scheduled for August 11th. The council can decide then whether to send the local option question to voters.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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