In America's Kegerator, defining the term "habitual drunkards" is something of a Herculean feat. Yet that's just what the Madison Mayor's office and other city officials hope to do to utilize an ancient state law that prohibits selling booze to problem alcoholics in the city.
Most cities and officials are completely unaware the provision even exists. But Katherine Plominski, Madison's Alcohol Policy Coordinator, says the framework to allow the city to deny boozehounds their booze, something Madison has long sought to do, has been contained in a state law all along.
The statute itself appears to be gleaned from Part I, Title XV, Chapter 66, Section 1558 of the Revised Statutes of the State of Wisconsin, passed by the state legislature in 1883. It notes a number of conditions that liquor license holders must meet, lest they be summoned before city officials to show cause why their liquor license should not be revoked.
Plominski didn't say precisely how her office came across the statute, but the image from the Simpsons episode where the town re-enacts prohibition springs to mind. I imagine the city of Madison has a little old man with a visor and a great, dusty volume spread open in front of him, reading, "And he who shall violate this law shall be punished by catapult."
Plominski told me Friday she doesn't watch the Simpsons, so I don't think she quite levelled with me on the humor in the situation. She does, however, have a serious problem with regular drunks on her hands, which is why the idea is so appealing to her.
"We were having a lot of meetings where we were talking about this list of chronic alcoholics," she told me. "The police know them by name, they have contact with them reguarly... And these people are raking up all sorts of citations."
She even mentioned one individual who has been sent to the detox center more than 50 times in less than a year. If it were illegal to serve this person, she contends, he could be forced to dry up, he could choose to go elsewhere or he would at least have a harder time of getting his hands on his poison of choice.
The city of Green Bay, Plominski noted, has been using the same provision in state law for nearly a decade. There, the police decide whose name winds up on the "problem drunk" list, and they distribute it to all the liquor license holders in town.
But Madison's administration would like the process to be more formalized than that, Plominski explained. There would be a series of standards, including a set number of detox trips or police citations, to determine what constitutes a "habitual drunkard." There would also be an appeals process put in place to make sure no one is unfairly denied their right to booze.
In order to establish these criteria, Plominski would like to see an ordinance put before the city council. Her hope is to get the criteria passed, a list developed and names and photos distributed to all liquor venders by springtime: "before we start to see these issues in our parks," she said.
"A lot of these (retailers) don't want to sell to these people," Plominski said, "but they don't have an excuse not to. They're looking for a reason to tell them no."
While a proposal has yet to be introduced before the common council, Plominski says the city's legal staff has already given it the go-ahead nod, saying the city has statutory ground to stand on in pursuing such an ordinance.
This issue has not yet gotten any media play in Madison. We'll be officially "breaking" the story on AM 1670 WTDY Monday morning (I don't get to break a lot of stories as a radio reporter, so it feels good to get one every once in a while), and I assume the papers and TV stations will take it and run with it in a day or two.
I personally haven't had a lot of time to mull it over yet. I do think it's an interesting, kind of sideways approach to a tricky problem, but I would certainly like to see the criteria of what defines a "habitual drunkard" on paper before I weigh in either for or against the proposal.
I just can't escape the feeling we'll need to call in Rex Banner to enforce the ordinance, if it goes through.