Is government enforcing its laws?

The News is investigating charges the government has not been enforcing the Yukon Liquor Act. According to information received in the last month,…

The News is investigating charges the government has not been enforcing the Yukon Liquor Act.

According to information received in the last month, the Yukon Party government has ignored liquor act infractions, like overcrowding, overserving and serving minors.

And that loose enforcement has permitted problems, like drug use, trafficking and violence, to fester.

For example, when a bar is overcrowded or its patrons are overserved there is an atmosphere of chaos that makes it harder for servers or bouncers to curb illegal behaviour.

These allegations have persisted for years.

They first surfaced in 2004, and were pursued by the Yukon New Democratic Party following troubling statistics in the liquor corporation’s 2002-2003 annual report.

It stated there was an increase in infractions in the spring of 2002.

The trend was troubling enough to prompt the corporation to publish a guide to infraction prevention.

Now, either that guide worked, or the oversight was turned down under the newly elected Yukon Party, which has close ties to the hotel and bar industry.

Archie Lang, Peter Jenkins and longtime party organizer and political campaign chairman Craig Tuton have a stake in territorial bars.

And, under the Yukon Party, there were fewer suspensions issued to bars, according to corporation statistics.

In 2001-’02, bar owners were handed 11 licence suspensions and 20 warning letters.

The next year, there were seven suspensions, and 45 letters issued.

But in 2003-’04, the first full year under the Yukon Party, although 49 warning letters were issued, only three suspensions were handed out.

And, in 2004-05, there was only a single licence suspension, and 13 warning letters issued.

So why the drop?

This is what the NDP and The News wanted to figure out in 2004 through the corporation records, which both organizations requested to see under access to information.

Both The News and the NDP wanted to investigate whether the drop was due to better compliance or weaker enforcement of the liquor laws under the “hotel-friendly government,” in the words of New Democrat Steve Cardiff, who spoke about it in the house on November 23, 2004.

The government offered to provide the information once the opposition and newspaper each ponied up $1,326.50.

Now, prompted by fresh information, The News has relaunched its investigation, focusing on three local watering holes — the Capital Hotel, which is partially owned by Archie Lang, the Kopper King Tavern and the 202 Motor Inn’s bar, formerly Sam McGee’s Bar and Grill.

This summer, the Capital was linked to drug activity when a group of vigilante youth armed with baseball bats demanded a known drug dealer leave the bar.

Last week, The News asked the Yukon Liquor Corporation for copies of all licenced premise checks — the report inspectors draft after checking bars for infractions, like overserving, serving minors and overcrowding.

The paper also asked for copies of all warning letters and suspensions issued to two local establishments.

Officials seemed reluctant to hand out that information.

“There was a writ dropped and that does put some restrictions on what we can and cannot do,” said liquor corp. spokesperson Doug Caldwell on Monday.

What restrictions?

“Divulging information restrictions,” said Caldwell.

Throughout the country, incumbent governments in the midst of elections only place essential ads, they don’t announce new programs or hold public consultations, said several officials interviewed by The News.

“We’re now in an election campaign and governments generally back off a little bit from making big announcements and the normal government advertising will often be cut back to what is necessary,” said legislative assembly clerk Patrick Michael.

“It ends up being a judgment call.”

But restrictions shouldn’t apply to existing government files.

He wasn’t aware of any information restrictions that would kick in once an election was called.

Officials in the Yukon Access to Information and Protection of Privacy office and Executive Council Office were similarly perplexed.

“I’m not aware of that from an ATIPP standpoint,” said ATIPP records manager Judy Pelchat.

“Public information should still be provided upon request, if we’re talking about program or service information,” said Executive Council Office communications officer Bonnie King.

So, this week, The News filed eight access to information requests to the Yukon Liquor Corporation for information about how city bars have been monitored.

After the earlier investigation was blocked, Cardiff is watching The News’ efforts with interest.

“Typically what happens is, if you go through ATIPP, you end up getting charged an exorbitant amount and you end up saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to get that information,’ so you give up,” said Cardiff last week.

“Trying to get the number of licenced premise checks and enforcement actions that have been taken is like pulling hen’s teeth from these people,” he said.

Cardiff wants to ensure the government does two things: enforce its liquor laws and be more open about releasing its information.

“The government and the liquor corp. need to be more transparent with all of the information around liquor licence enforcement and infractions.

“If you look at what the federal government is doing with people who sell tobacco to minors, it’s a pretty public thing and it’s covered in the newspapers.”

If the Yukon government made its system more transparent, the territory wouldn’t have the problems it has with alcohol and drugs, said Cardiff.

And better enforcement would lead to increase public awareness and act as a deterrent to further infractions.

The government has a month to respond to the newspaper’s ATIPP request.

We’ll let you know what happens. (LC)