The Town of Ponoka took less than a year to decide that its new liquor sales bylaw didn’t work.
Town council voted to repeal the bylaw at a recent meeting, despite statistics compiled by the RCMP that showed a drop in alcohol-related calls, especially downtown.
The bylaw came into effect on July 7. It quickly became a controversial tipping point for some candidates in the October election, resulting in a near complete turnover of council.
For Mayor Rick Bonnett, repealing the bylaw was akin to putting an open-for-business sign up.
“From what I was hearing from the business side is that the reason they weren’t having issues downtown is because nobody was coming downtown either,” he said. “If you don’t have people in your downtown, then you’re not going to have businesses down there either.”
The bylaw restricted the hours alcohol could be sold by liquor stores and hotel liquor off-sale (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and by delivery (ending at 10:30 p.m.). Rules have reverted back to Alberta Gaming Liquor Commission regulations that permits the sale of alcohol from any licensed establishment between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m.
The bylaw was put into affect following a spike in impaired driving cases in the town, giving it the highest rate in the country in 2012. The rate of 1,181 impaired drivers per 100,000 population was 2.62 times the provincial rate of 450 per 100,000.
Wetaskiwin enacted a similar liquor bylaw in 2010, pushing late liquor sales further south on Hwy 2 to Ponoka.
In the first six months of the bylaw, RCMP saw a noticeable drop in statistics across the board.
Over the same July 7 to Dec. 16 period, impaired driving charges fell 46 per cent, disturbing the peace calls between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. fell by 22 per cent, domestic violence decreased by 46 per cent, and assault charges between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. fell 23 per cent.
Coun. Loanna Gulka was the only councillor to vote in favour of keeping the bylaw. Gulka said council has not had enough time to really see its full impact. The final vote was 4-1 to repeal it.
“I find it very disappointing,” she said. “A lot of time and effort went into it. We spoke to a lot of experts and had a lot of experts present to us. I would have liked to see it run its course for the two to three years that they recommended to see if it was really working or not.”
There were other issues, said Bonnett.
There was the concern they were just pushing the problem down the road to Lacombe or to Camrose. He believes it should be a provincial issue, that the rules should be the same across the board and that it is the jurisdiction of the gaming and liquor commission.
Tatjana Laskovic, communications officer for the commission, said that while the provincial body has set hours for sale of alcohol, each municipality is within their rights to deviate from those hours. She also said there is no plan for the provincial liquor commission to alter these regulations in the near future.
Ponoka was also often dealing with requests to expand the hours for certain days like during the Ponoka Stampede and New Year’s Eve.
The mayor says Ponoka needs to look at different ways to deal with alcohol issues in the community.
Bonnett says the town is considering a conduct bylaw that will see heavy municipal fines, on top of fines through the Criminal Code, doled out for instances of fighting, public urination/defecation and graffiti, among other violations. But he wants the public to show that they can police themselves before moving ahead with this action.
“We’re thinking of making those fines substantial so it really makes you think twice about it. Especially in Alberta, we’re in the oilpatch and we have that high-spending, bigger and bigger wallet attitude who look at a $150 fine and go ‘Whatever,’ ” said Bonnett. “We’re hoping people learn to conduct themselves in a proper manner.”