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Portage officials look to fast-track liquor ordinance to help restaurants, bars during COVID-19 closures
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Portage officials look to fast-track liquor ordinance to help restaurants, bars during COVID-19 closures

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After being prompted by local business owners, Portage Common Council members pushed for more quickly passing an ordinance that would allow carryout liquor sales as soon as possible to help small businesses.

Mark Hahn asked during Tuesday’s council meeting whether, given the COVID-19 pandemic, council members could simply pass an emergency measure to immediately approve those types of sales.

State law requires municipal government to pass an ordinance. City Clerk Marie Moe said it cannot simply be declared because officials would have to include all of the current alcohol-based statutes.

“They are stuck in a bind, their hand’s being forced,” Hahn said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to help them out.”

Mayor Rick Dodd and administrative officials noted the process is complicated because it requires language from all alcohol permit-based law.

“It sounds very easy to do,” Dodd said of making a simple proclamation. “But it’s all intertwined in there. I’d just as soon do it right and not miss anything.”

The reason for the rush is due to the method in which an ordinance is approved at the city level. It first would have to be drafted through advice by the Legislative and Regulatory Committee, which meets on the first Monday of each month. Then if recommended by committee members, it would be sent to council members for a first reading followed by a second reading at a subsequent meeting for formal adoption.

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The topic was brought for discussion by Dodd after he said he spoke to small-business owners concerned over their loss of revenue as they try to maintain solely with takeout orders.

“I’ve had a chat with several, more than once, bar owners that would like to have the ability to sell fermented or distilled liquor,” Dodd said. “They can already sell beer and wine in unopened cans and bottles; they would also like to be able to sell distilled liquor in the same small bottles, or larger bottles, if they want.”

While passage of the ordinance could take until mid-May, Gov. Tony Evers’ recent stay at home order extension is set to be in place only until May 26. Restaurants and bars have been limited since March 17, when mandated closures took effect.

City Administrator Shawn Murphy said rules for voting on an ordinance could be suspended by council members. The ordinance could then be passed with a single reading and vote during a council meeting scheduled for May 14.

Some local business owners feel that’s too long to wait. La Tolteca co-owner Alonso Aranda recently criticized the city for failing to help small businesses and said his business is losing much of its revenue because of his inability to sell margaritas to go with small bottles of sealed tequila, a staple beverage for the Mexican restaurant. Aranda wanted to see an emergency meeting held to pass the ordinance more than a week ago.

The ordinance has not yet been drafted. It would likely remain as a permanent city law if passed. Council members could rescind the ordinance if they decided not to continue the practice once the pandemic closures are lifted.

Hahn had echoed Dennis Nachreiner, who requested more than once that the committee possibly discuss the ordinance earlier than the first Monday in May.

Prompted by council members eager to see the ordinance passed sooner, Legislative and Regulatory Committee Chairman Mike Charles agreed to schedule a committee meeting within the next week. If the committee passes the ordinance on to council members for consideration at their April 30 meeting, they could adopt the ordinance that night.

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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