Bethel residents head to polls for booze laws again

Posted: Monday, January 04, 2010

BETHEL - After three months of confusion and second-guessing over residents' decision to lift a decades-old ban on liquor sales, the city is preparing to hold another booze vote Jan. 19. Then yet another alcohol election is planned for later in the year.

The January vote - advisory only - is intended to find out what people really wanted when they tossed out the liquor prohibition in the southwest Alaska hub in October.

Were they sick of the state recording how much alcohol they ordered from Anchorage and restricting individuals to less than a keg of beer a month? Or did they actually want bars and liquor stores to open?

The City Council plans to use the advisory vote as a roadmap as it decides whether to oppose a growing number of liquor license applications.

Meantime, a group opposing local liquor sales altogether successfully petitioned for a third election, likely to be held in the spring, asking residents to again outlaw the sale of alcohol.

Behold booze politics in rural Alaska.

"Our heads are just kind of going in circles out here," said Bethel Mayor Joe Klejka, a physician who favors a return to "damp" status for the city. That means you can order a limited amount of liquor but can't buy it in town.

Bethel was the largest damp community in Alaska until residents voted 615-523 on Oct. 6 to go "wet."

Now there's no monthly shipping limit and Bethel businesses are free to apply for liquor licenses from the state.

In a town that has routinely rejected attempts to loosen liquor laws, and that has long dealt with high rates of alcohol-related violence, accidents and neglect, the election results caught Allen Joseph by surprise. Alcohol sale had been illegal ever since he moved to Bethel from the Yup'ik village of Hooper Bay in the 1980s. Bethel police have said nine of 10 crimes involved alcohol.

"In the past, votes like this, or propositions to go wet, always crashed and burned," he said. Joseph figures some voters who favored damp status stayed home in October, assuming they didn't need to vote.

Others may have been confused. Proponents of the change portrayed the vote as a strike against burdensome, arbitrary state oversight, rather than switching the city from damp to wet.

But that's what happened.

Bethel is now eligible for two bars, two liquor stores, four alcohol-serving restaurants and a slew of other liquor licenses based on its population of 5,600, said Shirley Gifford, director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Four local restaurants plus the biggest store in town, Alaska Commercial Co., have already applied for the right to sell alcohol.

By November, the monthly shipping restrictions to Bethel disappeared. People could order as much alcohol as they wanted.

Local leaders are still gauging the effects.

At first the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. saw a spike in alcohol-related emergency room visits, said chief executive Gene Peltola. Then E.R. visits dipped to pre-November levels and have since leveled off, he said.

Klejka hasn't seen signs of more liquor in Bethel since the vote, he said, although he hears the price of bootlegged vodka plummeted by half.

"(Bootleggers) can just order however much they want now," he said. "But they've got to sell more to make the same profit."

Police report no obvious increase in alcohol-related crime within the city.

"It hasn't been much of a change, if at all," said Lt. Andre Achee, a 20-year veteran of the Bethel Police Department.

Instead, troopers tell him it's the surrounding villages that are seeing fallout from the vote, Achee said.

Bethel is a shopping, medical and social service hub for dozens of smaller communities that have voted to ban liquor. This time of year villagers travel to the city on snowmachines and four-wheelers along the frozen Kuskokwim River.

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