Help keep our kids safe'
New Milford's Town Council , in a 6-1 vote, passed an underage drinking ordinance Monday night that officials believe will reduce private house parties where alcohol is served to minors. It becomes effective Jan. 28.
The ordinance fills a gap in state law regarding a minor's possession of alcohol on private property. Officials say 61 percent of teen drinking occurs in private homes.
Council member Larry Greenspan was the lone "no" vote. Members Pat Sherry and Roger Szendy were absent from the meeting.
New Milford is the 40th town in the state to adopt such an ordinance, the first in 2005. Several state towns have $90 fines, which can be mailed in without a court appearance.
"The goal is to keep our kids and community safe," said Joe Speranzo , executive director of the Housatonic/Shepaug United Way and chairman of the local prevention council NMCAN, the Community Action Network.
"This is the first step to help keep all our kids safe," Mr. Speranzo said. "We've got wonderful kids in this community. We want to see them all become wonderful adults."
He said Tuesday that the ordinance will provide support to parents "to stay firm with the right decision" not to serve alcohol at parties.
He added that NMCAN will be using several avenues to get information out to the community regarding the ordinance, underage drinking and safe driving, including forums, newsletters and speakers.
Mr. Speranzo said the group is also looking for "fresh ideas" and hopes to hear from members of the community.
Mr. Greenspan said the motives of supporters were good, but he was concerned about incompatible neighbors who might file frivolous complaints. He said he also feared the ordinance would drive teens to drink outside the home, where adults would not be present to have "a moderating influence."
He said once the ordinance is in effect, a person could not serve a couple of beers in their home to a soldier under 21 back from Iraq.
New Milford High School ice hockey coach Bob Greco took a different position.
"I brought 20 reasons why this ordinance should be passed," said Mr. Greco as he pointed to members of the green-shirted hockey team in the audience of about 60.
He said that as a coach it's very difficult to compete with "irresponsible" adults who host parties and tell kids it's OK to drink.
Parent John Sculley said the ordinance "puts the town stamp" on the illegality of serving alcohol to minors at house parties.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal attended the council meeting, as did State Representative Clark Chapin (R-67th) and State Sen. Andrew Roraback (R-30th).
The attorney general said the 39 towns who have adopted similar ordinances have in common "a concern for the problem of underage drinking... one of the most serious public health problems today in our state."
"Towns that have adopted an ordinance have seen parties diminish by a half or more," Mr. Blumenthal said. "An ordinance has a measurable effect."
A father of four, including three teen-aged sons, he said parents have told him having an ordinance helps them say "no" to house parties where alcohol is served.
"Having the law on your side is very important," Mr. Blumenthal said.
He observed that it reinforces those parents who want to do the right thing, adds to the quality of life in the community and improves public health and safety.
New Milford pediatrician Evan Hack told the council and the audience that alcohol is the substance most commonly abused by teens, and said the consequence of that abuse is often accidental injury, assaults or death.
Margie McClure of NMCAN said substance-abuse issues need to be addressed and re-addressed on a regular basis and the ordinance is a key step to dealing with the issue on a long-term basis.
"We may never know how many we save, but we will always grieve for those we lose," Ms. McClure said in urging the council to adopt the ordinance.
Town Attorney Randy DiBella stressed that the ordinance gives police no new powers to enter private property. Under the ordinance, police would respond to a complaint but would need a warrant to search the home unless minors drinking alcohol are in plain view.
According to Attorney General Blumenthal, Westport and Stamford are considering similar ordinances. He said the more communities that adopt ordinances, the better the chance of getting a statewide ordinance.
"A lot of good law begins at the local level," he said.
Rep. Chapin said each year legislators make a little more progress toward enacting a statewide ordinance.
"If not this year, very soon thereafter," he predicted.
Members of NMCAN have been pushing for a local ordinance for two years.
Resident Greg South said the $100 fine seemed small.
Mr. South's son Joe, 17, died in an auto accident in November after attending a house party in Sherman where alcohol was reportedly available to minors. Police have said they have yet to determine if Joe South had consumed alcohol before the crash.
Mr. South told the council that $100 was the amount he spent on sleeping pills after his son's death.
Councilman Frank Wargo and most other council members agreed with those who wanted a larger fine. Mr. Wargo called for compulsory education classes for parents and their children.
"It's like coming home and closing one window and leaving all the other windows open," he said. "We have to close all the windows and make the house safe."
Councilman Ray O'Brien noted that $100 is the maximum fine the town can assess under current state law. He said members have asked legislators to enact legislation that would permit towns to increase the penalty for violating the ordinance.
Fellow member Pete Bass said he wished the fine could be $1,000 and cars could be impounded.
Council member Terry Volinski agreed $100 is a small fine, but she said it is a start. She and member Mary Jane Lundgren said the council needed to take a stand and act now.
Sen. Roraback said legislation being considered in the session that began Wednesday would make it a criminal offense to host a party and serve alcohol to minors and could impose time in jail, greater fines and community service.
For more information on NMCAN, contact Joe Speranzo, executive director of Housatonic/Shepaug United Way and chairman of NMCAN, at (860) 354-8800. Meetings are held the second Thursdayof the month at 4 p.m. at New Milford High School. All are welcome to attend.