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Social host ordinance not dead yet

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By Thomas Barr

SHEPHERDSVILLE -- She sat there with a stunned look.

And then she began to cry.

The groundwork which had been put into place for years crumbled before her eyes.

Bullitt Fiscal Court, which had heard the full presentation supporting a social host ordinance several months earlier, failed to take any action on a motion for its adoption recently.

For Thrissie Dohn, it was a night she still cannot believe.

A social host ordinance, which has been passed in various communities, including Shelby County, holds adults responsible if they are found to have supplied alcohol to minors on their property.

During the most recent discussion, members of Bullitt Fiscal Court listened to several residents who were concerned about the language and possible ramifications of the social host ordinance proposed.

Dohn said, in hindsight, she made the mistake of not having supporters of the ordinance there to speak for its passage.

"I was stunned," Dohn said of her reaction when magistrate Ruthie Ashbaugh's motion for approval died without a second. "I was completely shocked."

Bullitt County's Partners in Prevention had worked for several years to get such an ordinance ready for consideration. The topic was mentioned nearly a decade ago but never got to the point of a vote for passage.

At the most recent consideration, questions from the audience were aplenty.

Gary and Brenda Board were concerned about several portions of the ordinance.

Assistant county attorney Susan Streble said that under the ordinance, if the adult property owner realizes that alcohol is being consumed by minors, he or she has an hour to call law enforcement officials and would be protected.

If the property owner failed to notify law enforcement, that is when the liability could become a problem.

Parents can allow their minor children to consume alcohol, said Streble.

If signs are posted on property and a group of underage youth gather to drink alcohol without the knowledge of the owner, Streble said there are protections.

Streble said the property owner who hosts a party is not responsible for searching guests to see if they have any alcohol they are sneaking onto the premises. However, there are responsible actions which must be taken if there is the suspicion of illegal acts going on at a party.

Dennis Mitchell said he owns some vacant property and he should be not held liable for what goes 24/7 since he cannot always be present.

And Theresa Buky said that there are just too many questions to pass the ordinance as presented.

Buky felt that searching each child would be required. And youth wanting to drink will find ways to get alcohol onto the property.

Streble said the social host ordinance would help close some loopholes in the law.

Earlier in the year, 48 young people were cited for underage drinking in Mount Washington at a party. Two adults were tried in the case for unlawful transaction with a minor and disorderly conduct.

The outcome was not favorable.

The ordinance is needed to assist both the police and the prosecutors in such situations, she added.

During the trial, all the teens called to testify said that the owner was not supplying any alcohol and they all brought it in themselves.

Buky said she understood but there seemed to be a lot of possible abuse under this ordinance.

Magistrate John Bradshaw said he was concerned about what he, as a property owner, could do during the hour before he called police. He inquired whether it was possible to call the parents or should he call the police first.

If the host parent took care of the situation first, Streble said there would be no reason to get the police involved.

Sheriff David Greenwell said the ordinance would help his deputies, especially in the case of the Mount Washington party. Under the ordinance, Greenwell said it would have set out provisions on how to deal with the juveniles at the scene.

Streble added that when police have to deal with a large number of participants quickly, it hurts their ability to do thorough investigations.

Dohn spoke on behalf of the proposed ordinance.

While parents in the audience would do the right thing if there was underage drinking going on at their property, Dohn said there are many who would not call the authority.

Dohn said it is easy to speculate that a good property owner might get caught up in the language of the ordinance and be found guilty of a crime. However, that is a rare occasion.

"I have a vision to make this county safe," said Dohn. "I hope everyone else in the room does also."

When it was time to approve or disapprove the proposed ordinance, Ashbaugh was the lone magistrate to utter a word.

She made her motion to approve the ordinance. There was no second.

"I really felt good about it," Dohn said of the ordinance's passage. "I should have had more people there. I just didn't feel like I needed it."

At the prior discussion, a student spoke about the ease in which a minor can get alcohol and drugs at parties.

The social host ordinance set about ways to hold property owners responsible if they knew drugs or alcohol were being used or transported.

Chad Lynch, health education for the Bullitt County Public Health Department and member of the PIP, said that survey information collected from local students supported the ordinance.

"The kids tell us there is easy access to alcohol," said Lynch. "There's no way to dispute that this is one way to deter them."

The future of the ordinance is not dead. In fact, both Dohn and Lynch were resolved to bring the matter back up before fiscal court in the near future.

Lynch said the group is looking forward to working with fiscal court to see how the language could be changed to address the concerns of the magistrates.

"This is something we feel very strongly about, that this is the right thing to do," said Lynch. "It's doing things right versus doing the right thing. Our officials need to step up and do the right thing."

Dohn said she definitely learned a lesson about the governmental process.

"This is so important for this county," Dohn said of the social host ordinance. "We need it."