The Forest Lake City Council is planning to hold a public hearing and possibly make a decision about proposed changes to its tobacco sales ordinance at its Aug. 12 meeting.

Assistant City Administrator Dan Undem said city staff, including he and City Attorney Bridget Nason, are working on taking council members’ suggested ordinance changes and crafting them into proposed code updates. Those proposals will be worked into an updated version of city code that the council can review and sign off on, either in part or in full.

“That’s all going to come back to the council for consideration at the first meeting in August,” Undem said.

A draft of the code update will be up on the city’s website within 10 days of the Aug. 12 meeting, and current local license holders will receive a notification from the city that the council is considering changes. The city will also provide an opportunity for license holders to submit feedback digitally in case they can’t make the public hearing.

Council feedback

The council discussed potential changes to the ordinance at its June 17 work session. The body asked staff to work on potential ordinance changes earlier this year in the light of recent licensing issues and concerns about vaping and underage tobacco use in the community. During the June 17 discussion, Undem presented some preliminary possible changes to members for feedback.

The council was in agreement on a number of potential changes but had a difference of opinion on how far changes should go. Though they asked some questions, members generally took little issue with changes that included “electronic delivery devices” (like vape rigs) as a regulated item, required child resistant caps for vape juice, required proof of compliance regarding employee training to avoid underage sales, and required only government-issued photo ID to be accepted identification, among other language tweaks. Councilwoman Kathy Bystrom questioned the logic of not requiring current license holders to adhere to new training guidelines, but Mayor Mara Bain suggested that existing licensees be given until their 2021 license renewal for those requirements to be put into effect.

However, there were a few areas where the council found more disagreement.

The first area related to penalties for being caught selling tobacco products to minors. Bain floated the idea of narrowing the window of time in which failed compliance checks are kept on record for calculating penalties, but other council members believed the 24-month period discouraged businesses from becoming repeat offenders.

“To me, they’re held accountable longer,” Councilman Sam Husnik said.

Bystrom suggested raising the fine for the penalty for a second violation from $550 (its current level) to $750, and she wondered if staff could include language that would institute a permanent ban on a license holder who has committed several violations.

“If [a license violation] happens a second time, I think it needs to mean something,” she said of the increased fine.

Though other council members were agreeable to increasing the fine, they and staff pointed out that the council can simply choose not to approve the license of an applicant who’s committed several violations in a city rather than issuing a formalized permanent ban. All of the present council members (Paul Girard was absent) also liked the idea of incentivizing good behavior, perhaps by offering a discounted license fee for tobacco retailers who remain in good standing for a long time.

One of the biggest proposed changes over which the council didn’t quibble was a section that banned new businesses that primarily sell tobacco (not including places like gas stations that sell tobacco as a minor part of the business) from operating with 500 feet of a school or park, but Bystrom wanted the restrictions to go further, arguing for a cap on the number of tobacco licenses that can be issued by the city. Bain said she was open to this provision but wanted a sunset on it that would allow future councils to review the number as the city grows. Bystrom said she frequently talks to people who are surprised at what they see as a high number of tobacco sellers and vape shops for a city of Forest Lake’s size.

“It really jumps out,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention among council members was the so-called “Tobacco 21” provision, a national movement to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. Bystrom thought enacting the provision was a good idea in Forest Lake, while Husnik and Councilwoman Kelly Monson thought the idea was at least worth discussing, especially considering that the measure was close to passing at the Minnesota Legislature this year. Monson felt the matter was a public health issue, while Bystrom said the measure could help keep tobacco out of local schools by making sure that no 18-year-old high school seniors can legally buy such products.

Bain, however, was more hesitant, stating that she’d received negative public feedback about the idea and framing the issue as one of adulthood and the age of consent.

“As somebody who was married when they were 20 and had student loan debt and a car loan and my own rent and a full-time job and a college degree and could have been deployed to the military, had I chosen that path, and could purchase a firearm – you know, purchasing tobacco products, I kind of put into that same lump,” she said.

Undem told The Times that on issues where council members expressed disagreement, the disputed provisions would be included in the proposed language changes for discussion. It’s up to the body which changes will be approved.

“The council still has the right to say, ‘Based on the feedback, we don’t want to put this in here,’” he said.

Ryan Howard has been the news editor of The Forest Lake Times since 2014.

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