The Essex Jct. board of trustees will consider adopting a new open container ordinance that would allow local police to crack down on drinking on public property.
The discussion marks the trustees’ latest push to combat unwanted behaviors along the village’s multi-use path, which was built in 2016 with a local investment of nearly $100,000, with the hope that it would help eliminate drug and criminal activity in the area.
“While there is now a safe path for people to go down, the appropriate behaviors have not always followed suit,” said village president Andrew Brown at the trustees’ Sept. 24 meeting.
He said he’s heard from residents who say they’ve complained about people loitering and drinking alcohol in the area, only to be told that without an open container law, there’s not much police can do.
“That’s something we can actually fix,” Brown said. He asked the trustees to avoid debating “nitty gritty” details for now, planning for the topic to come up at a future meeting. But the board get a first look at what a new ordinance might be.
Under rules drafted by police Chief Rick Garey, the village could fine people who possess or consume alcoholic beverages in any public space. Fines would range from $100 for a first offense up to $800 on the fourth and any subsequent offenses. Those who decline to contest the complaint would pay a “waiver fee” of half the penalty amounts. The ordinance would similarly apply to minors.
Garey, who recently advocated for changes to the dog leash law, offered a less enthusiastic pitch for the container ordinance. He said the PD hasn’t had many issues with open containers in the past and can already take action against people who are intoxicated, bringing them to detox or a family member.
And he was unsure how much of a deterrent it would be: The ordinance would allow police to issue civil tickets, but the village doesn’t typically pay its attorney to go argue on its behalf against someone who refuses to pay the fine. “There’s not a lot of backbone behind that,” Garey said, “unless we start investing money in attorneys to go after these folks.”
Trustee Dan Kerin, a retired state trooper, argued the ordinance would deter some of the behavior either way, because the police would now have the authority to interact with the individuals. “When you’re dealing with law enforcement, people don’t enjoy that,” he said.
It’s not the first time the village has pondered how to combat loitering along the multi-use path. Prompted by a resident’s complaints and the vandalism of a few light posts last year, staff planted rose bushes along a stone retaining wall to prevent people from sitting there and congregating late into the night. But a third of the 30 bushes were uprooted within a week.
Police had vowed to patrol the area when possible, though Garey noted at the time that without an open container ordinance, often officers’ hands were tied. But even if the board passes the ordinance, whether the department has the resources to consistently enforce it is another question.
“It’s balanced with what else is going on at that time, so it’s kind of like a barking dog,” he said of a call about an open container. “It’s important, but it’s got to be measured. If we’re dealing with intoxication or drinking, we’re just going to stack it in the order that we have to handle the call.”
Still, Garey said a new ordinance give the PD another tool when responding to “ someone who’s [acting] inappropriate.” That is, as long as someone lets the police know. “All this starts with: If there’s a problem, someone’s gotta call the PD,” Garey said. “If we don’t know, we can’t deal with it.”