With very little discussion, the Portage Common Council on Thursday rescinded a bartender’s license that Police Chief Ken Manthey said he had mistakenly authorized, for the relative of a friend of his who has a record of drug-related charges.
The same matter was discussed, at times heatedly, at the Jan. 4 meeting of the city’s Legislative and Regulatory Committee, when members mulled whether there should be a way for city officials to recuse themselves from operator’s license decisions involving people they know, to avoid the appearance of preferential treatment.
At Thursday’s council meeting, the matter was resolved with two unanimous votes among the six council members present at the session — first to reconsider the council’s previous approval of the operator’s license, and then to reject it based on the arrests and convictions the applicant had listed on his application.
Council member Rita Maass, who is chairwoman of the Legislative and Regulatory Committee, said at the Jan. 4 committee meeting that she never would have voted to approve the license if she had seen the application.
Typically, a license for someone to serve alcohol in the city requires sign-off from the city clerk, treasurer and police chief, or their designees, before the application goes to the Common Council for final approval. Applicants are asked if they have been convicted of any felony, if they have been arrested or convicted of violating other laws relating to use or abuse of alcohol or other drugs in the last five years, and if any charges are pending.
The applicant listed a Minnesota felony conviction of eluding a police officer, a Minnesota drunken driving charge and a Wisconsin charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, but no pending charges.
Manthey told the committee the applicant is a close relative of a friend of his, and he made a mistake in signing off on the application. When he realized the mistake — after the council had approved the operator’s license Dec. 14 — Manthey said he called the applicant and told him not to pick up the license.
Maass said she asked that the application be included on the Legislative and Regulatory Committee agenda so the committee could consider whether the city needs a policy or procedure requiring officials to step aside from considering operator’s license applications from family or friends.
City Administrator Shawn Murphy told the committee the city gets between 250 and 275 such applications annually, most of them in May and June, around the time when liquor licenses are up for renewal.
Review of most applications takes 20 to 30 minutes, Manthey said, though some reviews take much longer because of complexities – including run-ins with the law that the applicant did not list, but which are discovered in a background check.
Manthey said he has inquired with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, and police departments in nearby cities, as to whether they can handle those background checks for the police department occasionally. In all cases, he was told the other departments are too busy, he said.
And, Murphy said, under the city’s ordinances, Manthey had no conflict of interest in reviewing the application in question. The ordinances say a conflict exists if the applicant is a family member or someone with a monetary relationship, but does not specify the relatives of friends.
Maass suggested that, if there’s a possibility of conflict of interest, perhaps another high-ranking officer within the Portage Police Department could assume the duty of scrutinizing an application – a duty that usually falls to Manthey, but which is sometimes assumed by any of the department’s three lieutenants.
She also noted this particular application did not go to the Legislative and Regulatory Commission before it went to the Common Council. Typically, applications go to the committee only if city staff has recommended denial.
The minutes from the Dec. 14 Common Council meeting show the applicant was one of nine applicants for operators’ licenses, and one applicant for a taxi cab operator’s license, whom the council considered as a group. The motion for approval of all the applications carried on a 6-1 vote, with Maass voting no.
“If it were anyone else, the way this application was filled out, it would have been denied,” Maass said at the Jan. 4 committee meeting.
Murphy replied that he thought this was an isolated incident, and Manthey corrected the mistake as soon as he became aware of it.
“This shouldn’t impinge on the integrity of the police department,” Murphy said.
Committee member Jeff Monfort said he saw no evidence of a pattern of conflict of interest in the existing policies and process for reviewing operator’s license applications.
At Thursday’s Common Council meeting, nothing was said about the discussion at the Legislative and Regulatory Committee meeting, nor was the council invited to weigh in on the operator’s license process.