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Morrison County considers Social Host Ordinance

Does Morrison County need a social host ordinance? County officials are about to find out. The Morrison County Board of Commissioners will host a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday regarding a social host ordinance in the County Board Room at the Mo...

Does Morrison County need a social host ordinance?

County officials are about to find out.

The Morrison County Board of Commissioners will host a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday regarding a social host ordinance in the County Board Room at the Morrison County Government Center in Little Falls; and continue the hearing April 21 during the board's regular county board meeting that begins at 9 a.m. to find out what county residents think about the ordinance.

Morrison County Administrator Deb Gruber said the county looked at possibly having the ordinance years ago, but officials were not interested at the time and it was not discussed.

Now the issue has popped up again with the help of The Stand Up 4 U Coalition in Morrison County and the fact that Morrison County Public Health was the recipient of a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services-Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division. The Little Falls School District is the geographic area covered by the grant. The project includes alcohol-prevention curriculum in the middle and high schools and the development of student groups in each school to address substance use in their school and community.

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The Stand Up 4 U Coalition in Morrison County started in 2008 and consists of parents and community members, understands the economic and social issues with teen alcohol use and the resulting consequences and it encourages students to make good decisions when it comes to underage drinking and substance abuse.

Ann March, county's community health educator and the grant coordinator of the Stand Up 4 U Coalition, said the coalition spent a year collecting data on how many students are using alcohol and where they are getting it. The coalition found 46 percent of high school juniors in Morrison County in 2013 reported consuming alcohol in the past 30 days, saying they obtained the alcohol from parties. The survey also found students were taking alcohol from home or getting it from an older friend.

"We want to take steps to stop underage drinking from happening," March said. "The biggest benefit to this ordinance is it will serve as a deterrent of parties from happening. ... We know the ordinance will not stop underage drinking, but it replaces the existing hole we have with the laws by holding someone accountable if they host a party where underage persons were allowed to illegally consume alcohol."

If the ordinance is approved, it prohibits and establishes penalties for any person hosting an event or gathering where alcoholic beverages are present and being possessed or consumed by persons under 21 years of age. If a parent knowingly hosts a party where underage persons are drinking, they would be given a citation for violating the social host ordinance.

"We feel a majority of the parents are in support of this ordinance," said March. "We feel the community is ready for it, too. People disapprove underage drinking.

"Our data doesn't indicate we have a bigger underage drinking problem than other communities around the state. All communities have challenges with young people accessing alcohol from parties or other social sources. An asset we have in Morrison County is the many passionate community members throughout the county who are working in many ways to encourage young people to make healthy choices and avoid substance use. There are many people who understand that sometimes we need to enact laws to reduce opportunities for young people to make unhealthy decisions and engage in risky behaviors. A social host ordinance would serve as a deterrent to would-be party hosts."

Sheila Funk, the drug free communities project coordinator at the Little Falls Community High School, who used to work for the county public health department, has worked with students for four years. She said the culture has really changed with students using drugs and alcohol. Funk said students are making healthier choices and the social host ordinance will be beneficial to help all involved make healthier decisions.

"What I am hearing from parents and the community is this ordinance makes sense," said Funk. "This will be a real powerful deterrent at parties and everything has been positive. A few people have said they thought this was the law already."

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Bryan Tollefson, chair of the coalition, said the ordinance would fill the gap in the law and make a social host responsible for knowing that there is an underage person drinking on their property.

"This ordinance empowers parents to say no again," Tollefson said, especially those age 18 and younger. "I've been in Morrison County since 1999 and I have three sons and the number of parties hosted for minors has gotten better."

Tollefson said the school district has improved its programs and is communicating better with students on making better choices. Tollefson said there still is a small percentage of students drinking, but that number has gone down from 13 to 9 percent.

Tollefson said if a parent is drinking at home with their own children, it does not violate the ordinance. However, if other minors come to the house and drink, it is a violation.

"If my son comes home from the military and we want to have a beer, it does not impact us, the ordinance doesn't apply," Tollefson said. "If somebody else's kids comes over I would be in trouble. Since it is my property and my son it is my choice and is OK."

Tollefson said more and more counties and cities are adopting the social host ordinance. There are 108 cities and 25 counties in Minnesota that have adopted the ordinance. Tollefson said the ordinance is also a common sense ordinance. Crow Wing County does not have a social host ordinance.

Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf said he supports the ordinance.

"The main purpose of the ordinance is to send a message that we disapprove of underage drinking parties," Middendorf said. "The ordinance discourages people from hosting an underage drinking party and encourages people to act responsibly."

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Middendorf said if someone violates the ordinance it would be a misdemeanor. He said the person would receive a citation and would have to make a court appearance. The fine would be at the discretion of the judge.

Sheriff Shawn Larsen said the social host ordinance is a hot topic right now and he has heard people speak for and against the ordinance.

"I've heard people who don't want anymore laws or ordinances," Larsen said. "They think we have enough laws in place and (ask), 'Why should we create more?'

"I have listened to both sides of the story as the county's elected sheriff. I want to get all the facts out there. The public hearing is for citizens to voice their opinions and for them to gather the facts on whether they are for or against the ordinance."

Larsen said the ordinance will be another tool for the sheriff's office to work with. He said it will not bring more work for the deputies. Larsen said if there is a report of an underage drinking party, deputies will have to respond and investigate whether the ordinance is adopted or not.

"This ordinance only pertains to a small amount of cases," Larsen said. "I believe if implemented it will act more as a deterrent and educational piece for people.

"What we have learned from other counties who have the ordinance is they don't run into this anymore. People don't want to be fined."

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl .

Related Topics: MORRISON COUNTY
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