Waite: I applaud Saratoga Springs’ closing-time proposal, but I’m glad it failed

Sara Elacqua, general manager of Spa City Tap and Barrell Tuesday

Sara Elacqua, general manager of Spa City Tap and Barrell Tuesday

When Saratoga Springs police officers open fire at 3:03 in the morning in response to a shooting outside the downtown bars, everyone wants a quick fix.

The Saratoga Springs City Council attempted to deliver swift action following a recent late-night shootout with a proposal that could have pressured the city’s bars to close at 2 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.

I applaud the Council’s desire to act.

I’m also glad the measure failed.

The proposal would have amended city code to give the city the authority to revoke a bar’s license if a patron, after 2 a.m., commits a criminal offense on the premises or within an hour of leaving the premises. It effectively would have incentivized bars to close at 2 a.m., since staying open later would put their business at increased risk. 

The proposal followed a Nov. 20 incident in which multiple people were injured, including an off-duty Vermont sheriff’s deputy who had allegedly fired his non-service weapon and was shot multiple times by Saratoga Springs police after refusing to comply with police orders to lower his gun.

If the bar isn’t open at 3:03 a.m., a shootout that erupts from an argument inside the bar can’t happen at that time. Right?

Detect the sarcasm.

Obviously, it’s not that simple. And I don’t think anyone believes the City Council’s proposal, which failed in a 3-2 vote Tuesday night during a lengthy and well-attended meeting, was envisioned as a panacea. It was an attempt to curtail one potential cause of late-night violence. It was an attempt to feel like SOMETHING was being done, when far too often – especially after mass shootings that enter the national consciousness – nothing gets done.

In the aftermath of the failed proposal, the Council, as well as bar and business owners, and members of law enforcement must work together to install a public-safety measure that may actually stem violence downtown – or at least blunt the potential devastation of late-night altercations. The action I’m talking about will take longer and require an even tougher political fight than the Council’s attempt to get bars to close earlier.

I believe the city needs to work toward legislation that would ban Saratoga Springs bar patrons from carrying firearms during the late-night hours, when heavy drinking and guns have the potential to make heated and explosive arguments turn deadly.

The measure considered Tuesday would have been detrimental to the thornier, but more meaningful, discussion that’s needed. The measure would have alienated business owners, who were out in full force during the public hearing. Owners and managers said they felt attacked by it. They also said earlier closing times in a business that already operates on thin margins could result in a significant financial hit. For instance, owners at Lucy’s Bar said the earlier closings would cost the establishment as much as $45,000 a year if it had to impose a 1:15 a.m. last call to meet a 2 a.m. closing.

Passing the measure may have derailed the business community’s hope of forming a Caroline Street safety committee, which would involve them, police and city leaders in the work of finding real ways to increase safety downtown.

Of course, we’ve heard this type of desire for dialogue before – but talk must lead to action.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Saratoga Springs’ county supervisors, Matt Veitch and Tara Gaston, told the city’s council members the countywide body likely doesn’t have the appetite for changing the bar closing times. (At a previous meeting on Nov. 28, the City Council voted to send a letter to the County Board of Supervisors requesting a prohibition of alcohol sales after 2 a.m. The New York State Liquor Authority has the control of closing times and considers changes on a county basis.)

Saratoga Springs’ supervisors said because their colleagues on the county board don’t see the late-night violence in Saratoga Springs as a countywide issue, they’d be reluctant to advance restrictions on businesses. However, Veitch and Gaston noted, there is potential for the county and city to collaborate on a lobbying effort in Albany to pass state-level legislation that would effectively grant more local authority on bar closing times, allowing Saratoga Springs to set a different closing time than municipalities such as Clifton Park or Mechanicville.

Such a fight would require a lot more effort, the county supervisors said.

It’s crucial that the Council take on the more arduous, Albany-based approach. But its focus shouldn’t be on bar-closing times. Instead, city leaders should lobby Albany to grant Saratoga Springs local control over the issue of concealed carry.

State legislators have tried addressing the issue statewide. After the Supreme Court of the United States’ June 23 decision invalidating New York’s century-old gun control law that placed restrictions on concealed carry, state legislators passed expansive limitations that would prevent guns from being in many sensitive places, including in bars and restaurants where alcohol is served.

But these statewide limitations may ultimately be doomed in the courts.

That’s why Saratoga Springs’ leaders should take a more targeted approach. Working together, the city’s law enforcement, business owners and elected officials can compile a data-driven report that shows the increased risk of violence downtown during the early morning hours and focus on the heightened worry that comes from the presence of guns. With this report, leaders can lobby for the public-safety need to be able to ban concealed carry in city bars after a certain time of night, say midnight – or whenever the report deems appropriate.

In undertaking this initiative, the city will no doubt have to brace for a long and drawn-out battle.

It certainly won’t be a quick and easy fix.

The right moves rarely are.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, News, Opinion, Opinion, Saratoga County, Saratoga Springs

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