Council votes for more information, community input on social host ordinance

Laguna Beach is trying to do what the federal and state government hasn't accomplished: prevent the use of alcohol and drugs by anyone under 21.

The City Council on Tuesday agreed to move forward on a social host ordinance that prohibits adults from providing illegal substances to kids and imposes substantial fines on the violators. However, the council asked for more information on the consequences of the ordinance and for input from the city's youth, the community and the school district before enacting such a law, which has roused strong emotions in town — for and against.

"This law fails to address the simple fact that people drink whether it is illegal or not," said Laguna Beach High School and UC Santa Barbara graduate Alex Mattingley, one of the 38 speakers from the packed council chamber that weighed in on the proposed ordinance. "The trick is to get them to drink in a smart, moderate manner."

School district officials, the Community Coalition, medical and abuse-prevention professionals, youth groups, parents, a PTA and an out-of-town couple, whose 18-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver, supported the ordinance in the two-hour and 15 minute hearing.

"Alcohol use kills about 6,000 teens each year, causing more deaths than all other illicit drugs combined," said Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokeswoman Mary Beth Griffin. "Adults who purchase alcohol for those under age 21; who look the other way when teens talk about drinking exploits; and who host teenage drinking parties in their homes all contribute to the struggles many communities face when trying to prevent underage drinking."

Holding adults responsible is a pro-active step for concerned communities, but can be difficult."

The guilty party is often difficult to determine when police are called, but social host laws that allow police to cite the host is a way to hold adults accountable, Griffin said.

One student said off the record that the drinkers are the ones who should be held responsible.

Several high school students, recent graduates and some parents opposed the ordinance, at least as presented. Susan Vanderveen, mother of two Laguna Beach High School students, said her research indicated that problems outweighed the benefits of similar ordinances in other towns.

Macklin Thornton said a social host ordinance in Berkeley where he is now going to school has not resulted in fewer people abusing alcohol, but only in fewer people reporting the abuse.

"Banning something on paper does not guarantee anything and it is naïve to think of it as a first step," he said.

However, healthy fines might make the suppliers of alcohol to underage drinkers sit up and take notice, ordinance supporters said.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman, a retired college counselor, recommended mandatory counseling for the drinkers and their parents for the first violation.

"The second time? Go straight to the $1,000 fine," she said.

The proposed ordinance suggested a $500 fine for a first time violation, $750 fine for a second violation and $1,000 fine for third and successive offenses.

Iseman also suggested amnesty for 911 callers who need help or see someone in distress.

"I don't want anyone to have a reason not to call," Iseman said. "The most important thing is a kid's life."

Georgi Mercado took no position on the ordinance, but spoke about how Safe Rides copes with teenage drinking.

"Laguna Beach Safe Rides is a teen-operated program that offers a safe, confidential ride home to any teen in need on Saturday nights during the school year," said Mercado, program advisor. "We do not condone underage drinking, but we do accept the fact that it is happening."

The ordinance is a tool to combat that very issue, Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson said.

"We are told by the school district that alcohol and drug abuse are a major problem in Laguna Beach," Pearson said. "We are crafting an ordinance that will stop people from knowingly providing kids with alcohol. The end result is to prevent underage drinking and drug use and an ordinance is one way to address the problem."

The community may provide input on the ordinance by writing or e-mailing the police chief, Paul Workman, a and the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

All communications must be delivered by Oct. 16, the date set to allow incoming high school seniors an opportunity to participate.

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