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Ducking drinking law?

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

It takes pretty much every police officer Eugene has available to handle the crowds that descend on Autzen Stadium for Duck football games, leaving none to spare to patrol the acres of tailgate parties that now ring the home field.

It's that lack of personnel - rather than a lack of money - that's driving the police department's recent proposal to change the city's public drinking ordinance.

"We're basically out of police officers to police the event," said Capt. Pete Kerns, who supervises game-day operations. "There just aren't enough officers to go around."

Kerns led the review of the stadium drinking situation that prompted the ordinance proposal. It would suspend the city ordinance that bars drinking in public in a yet-to-be-defined area around the stadium, essentially making legal something that people have been doing anyway for many years.

The ordinance change is scheduled for a public hearing Sept. 10, and the City Council is expected to vote on the proposal Sept. 24. Right now, it appears likely to pass.

The existing version of the ordinance bans drinking in public - including on private property that is open to the public - everywhere in the city with one exception: the parking lot owned by the University of Oregon immediately outside Autzen Stadium on game days. That lot has shrunk over the years as the UO put buildings and playing fields on what used to be parking area, pushing tailgaters into privately owned parking lots across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and other commercial areas near the stadium.

But the exemption didn't follow them, and two years ago city police began reminding people of that.

The result was an outcry from UO fans as well as from the nonprofit groups that have come to depend on the revenue they earn renting their lots to the tailgaters.

What grates them, and the main issue cited by council members who support the change, is the perceived unfairness of allowing drinking in one parking lot and banning it right across the street.

"I just think that it's only fair that if you're going to allow the university to have an exemption that they should allow some of these other parking lots to have the same exemption. It's only the right thing to do," said City Councilor George Poling, whose district includes the stadium area and who asked that police look into the issue.

A majority on the council seem to agree. Alan Zelenka, Jennifer Solomon, Mike Clark and Chris Pryor all said that, pending comments at the public hearing, they lean toward supporting the ordinance change.

"I want to create, if you'll pardon the sports analogy, a level playing field for all the people around there," Pryor said. "It's kind of unfair to have them not be able to have the same level of support as the university enjoys."

What concerns police, though, isn't tailgating equality, it's the reality of policing a city with too few cops to go around.

Kerns said it takes 40 to 50 extra officers to handle traffic and crowd control in and around the stadium on game days.

The UO covers that extra effort through a contract that will pay the city $470,000 this year, an amount that is on top of the approximately $460,000 a year it pays for police services in the campus area.

But even with the university footing the bill, police are limited as to how many officers they can put on the football detail. Kerns said the department has fewer than 70 officers in the patrol division, and the union contract prevents it from requiring officers to come in on their days off.

That means just enough officers are available to work games and still allow the department to field a full complement of officers in the rest of the city.

"We can't allow an entertainment event to reduce the services that we provide to the rest of the community," Kerns said. "So we barely have enough officers to provide the fundamental security and traffic control in and around the stadium."

It would take at least an additional 40 officers to enforce the city's public drinking ban in the area around the stadium, he said.

The proposed ordinance makes the best use of police resources by putting the onus on parking lot owners to keep their crowds under control, Kerns said. If they don't, they face a first-offense fine of $200 that rises to $500 for subsequent violations with a one-year loss of the alcohol exemption after the third violation.

Lot owners also have to post signs and hand out fliers reminding tailgaters that drinking is allowed only during certain times on game days, that alcohol cannot be offered for sale and that disorderly conduct is not tolerated. In addition, the city is enlisting the help of the Lane County Sheriff's Office and Oregon State Police to step up drunken driving patrols in the area on game days.

"I like the police proposal because it puts the burden back on the owner of the property where the tailgating is taking place," Solomon said. "I think that's really fair and responsible."

Part of the reason Kerns believes the plan will work is because the lot owners and the university already have stepped up efforts to discourage alcohol abuse, which has resulted in a noticeable improvement over the past two years, he said. He also said that because tailgating, and drinking, already happen, changing the ordinance isn't likely to increase alcohol-related problems.

"What we hope this does is help us to manage what's there now," Kerns said. "The public discussion and awareness the parking lot owners have now about the risk they face personally and the risk to patrons and the interest they have in continuing this culture of tailgating, I'm hoping that will prevent the situation from growing worse."

The university also supports the proposed ordinance.

"We think that what the police have in mind is the sensible thing to do, and we'd like to be helpful," said Dan Williams, a special assistant for athletics to UO President Dave Frohnmayer. "It recognizes the reality of the circumstances and tries to treat everybody the same."

Not surprisingly, Williams said the UO would oppose a move to ban all drinking outside the stadium by eliminating the university's exemption to the public drinking law. He said tailgating has become such a tradition it's unlikely such a ban would be enforceable and said it would be unfair to law-abiding fans.

"Having alcohol at tailgating is so much a part of the event I'm not sure if we lost our exemption we'd be able to enforce or help the police department enforce the prohibition," he said. "On balance, it wouldn't seem appropriate to penalize the 95 percent of the people at Autzen that have alcohol and do tailgate and do it in a responsible manner because 5 percent of the people misbehave."

The only council member to come out against an expanded exemption so far is Bonny Bettman, who cast the only vote against sending the proposed ordinance to a public hearing. She did not respond to recent phone calls seeking comment but in previous discussions of the proposal called it "morally bankrupt public policy."

The expansion also is opposed by the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has said the move would send the wrong message for public safety.

Council member Betty Taylor said she hasn't made up her mind yet and is torn between the fairness issue and concerns about drunken driving. She said she would be inclined to support a complete ban on drinking outside the stadium if it included the university-owned lot as well, but she acknowledged that such a proposal is unlikely.

"It's quite a problem," she said. "I wish I didn't have to deal with it, actually. It's not one of those things where I see clearly what should be done."

The main issue for other council members is the size of the exemption zone. The original proposal by police was for a large area bounded by Interstate 5 and Coburg Road and Interstate 105 and the Willamette River, which includes some large residential areas as well as Alton Baker Park.

Zelenka thinks that's too much and plans to offer an amendment that shrinks the exemption zone to mostly the commercial areas adjacent to the stadium. Kerns said he agrees with that approach and is working on a revised proposal.
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; Police favor expanding tailgating area limits they say aren't practical
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Previous Article:Fans asked to remember game day conduct rules.
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