Over at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control they know a lot about the law. Compliance Manager Earl Dorius is an attorney. Also, they have the aid of the Utah Attorney General’s Office. If that weren’t enough, four of the Liquor Commission’s members are lawyers, including Chairman Nicholas Hales.
Anyone who has dealt with the DABC knows they are sticklers for following the complex state liquor laws. They know the ins and outs of the law. They know where the commas and semi-colons are and the phrases that do allow this or don’t allow that: In a restaurant, you have to order food to get a drink. But you can’t have two drinks in front of you unless you’re in a private club. If you’re not a member of a private club, you may enter one if a sponsor with whom you are acquainted invites you in … and on and on and on.
What’s interesting is that with all the legal expertise at the DABC, they somehow got confused on one of the simplest laws on our books, the Utah Open Meetings Act. That legislation, sometimes referred to as the Sunshine Law, is a pesky little detail that requires governmental entities to alert the public before meetings where votes would set or change policies. It’s just a minor, little thing that was set up in an attempt to keep the public’s business out in the open. Call it democracy.
Now we’re told that the Liquor Control Commission has been making decisions secretly by telephone without the public’s knowledge or even a proper vote—thank you Greg Burton, Salt Lake Tribune. What’s more, this has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Just a technicality?
That democracy has been reduced to such technicalities in Utah is sad—but true. The state Legislature is so entirely Republican—and white, male and Mormon, at that—most important decisions are made in closed caucus, later to be sanctified with official, public votes. Where does the DABC take its lead? Take a guess.
The latest round with the DABC truly is instructive of Utah government. Following a period of public comment, including a 12-page manifesto from the LDS church, the commission presented new rules on advertising guidelines. One new rule specifically banned religious “themes” or “images.” But when commissioners learned that such a rule would inhibit legal advertising of kosher wines, some members met secretly to amend that rule in favor of such wines. What seemed to be a rule specifically aimed at silencing Wasatch Brewery’s “Baptize Your Taste Buds” campaign still had holes, though—notably that some liqueurs, like Benedictine and Chartreuse, are distilled at monasteries. Publicly embarrassed at what appeared to be an overt attempt to adhere to LDS leanings, the board reversed the ill-conceived rule, but only after being caught with its collective pants down.
Certainly the leadership of the LDS church can hearken to a higher law and weigh in politically when it believes the need arises. But the governor and his DABC ought to follow state laws and make rules in public rather than answering to some higher calling.