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City grapples with alcohol training proposal
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Festival organizers and Springfield city officials still are trying to figure out how best to conduct the fall event — and protect the city’s interests.

Springfield City Council has asked what kind of training will be provided to volunteers who will staff a beer tent at the festival. Council member Steve Shealy, who is in hotel management, has asked the Springfield Merchants Association to provide training for the volunteers who will be working at the beer tent for the planned fall festival.

Shealy said training through TIPS (Training for Intervention Procedures) can be done for $40 per person, and the test can be taken in two to three hours. If a person fails the test, they can take it one more time. Shealy said it was strongly recommended that those checking wristbands and IDs also have the training, and not just those who will be serving alcohol.

"From a liability standpoint, this is what I think is necessary," he said.

But Jamey Stancell, president of the Springfield Merchants Association, countered that requiring the training would place an undue burden on the group. Stancell said that if the group has to have 10 to 15 people certified in order to have the event, it may be difficult to get enough volunteers willing to take the training.

"The Merchants Association discussed this at length. If we have to have 10 to 15 people certified to do this, it’s almost impossible," he said. "If I add something else to this plate, it’s going to make that number even less. It’s asking a little much to have them sit there for a three-hour class."

Council member Charles Hinely offered his concerns on what requiring training might do to the association’s volunteer pool.

"It’s going to make getting volunteers for an event almost impossible," he said. "I understand the liability. But we’re not going to make it bulletproof, no matter what we do. The people putting on the event are very concerned about it. If you have to have 10 volunteers who have to be trained, you ain’t gonna have volunteers."

But concerns over the city’s potential liability also weighed heavily with council members.

"I think everybody needs to have some kind of training," Mayor pro tem Jeff Ambrose said.

Stancell said his group is offering to hire an off-duty law enforcement officer to stand guard at the beer tent. The tickets to obtain beer and the station where IDs will be checked will be separate from where the beer is dispensed, Stancell said.

"You control the alcohol intake by the number of people pouring alcohol," he said.

Stancell told council members that the festival has the state alcohol license in hand, and the stipulations being considered came after the application was submitted.

"We’re trying to put on a $25,000 festival, and we get a roadblock put up," he said. "We have the state license now. This ordinance was not in effect when we applied for it. We have thrown the olive branch out there."

The festival is planning to have a "tow to go" operation, provided by beer vendor Anheuser-Busch, and a breathalyzer on the premises.

"Having ‘tow to go?’ What message does that send?" Shealy asked. "Y’all come down and get intoxicated. Is the purpose of the event to push the alcohol? From what I’m getting, it’s important to have the alcohol there."

Shealy said he didn’t think it was unrealistic to have the beer tent volunteers undergo training.

"I feel we as a city have to do everything we can," he said. "We support the event. But we’re doing everything we can to look out for the city. Alcohol can be a rattlesnake."

Stancell said the merchants association is trying to conduct the festival in a professional manner. Also, customers will be limited to two drinks.

"I think we’re doing as much as we can do reasonably at this point," he said.

An effect on future events?

Council members also wondered what might happen to future events if they stipulated that volunteers receive alcohol abuse prevention training.

"If we make a decision to require this and no one else follows suit, we might get ready to have events go on outside the city," said council member Troy Allen. " I agree we need to cover ourselves, but I don’t know what I see as a happy medium."

Stancell told council members he has talked with Effingham Chamber of Commerce Director Rick Lott about how the Chamber handled the annual Taste of Effingham, where beer is served.

Lott has been a professional event and festival producer for more than 20 years. He directed the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival in Texas, where there were more than 1,200 volunteers and six beer stations over 10 blocks, and he also had a hand in Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration for 10 years.

In his experience, having a nonprofit group’s volunteer corps trained is not the norm in the state or the nation and is unrealistic.

"I know that Chatham County is now requiring all bars and restaurants to have all their workers trained," Lott said, "but having paid staff is one thing and having to rely on volunteers is certainly another altogether. Volunteer-driven events do not have to use only trained staff as the businesses do. Non-profit events work very hard to get enough volunteers to be able to put an event on for the public and in some cases, we are still taking volunteers right up until the day of the event. That is the nature of volunteer-driven events."

Ambrose and council member Gary Weitman concurred with Shealy that training for volunteers would lessen the liability for the city. Stancell said the event’s insurance underwriter said the rate would not be affected if the volunteers received training.

"I know you’ll have it run well," Ambrose said to Stancell. "But we have a responsibility. You may not be the only ones wanting to come in here and have an event. The responsibility is going to fall on the city if something is not done right."

Said Shealy: "I’m not anti-alcohol. I feel we have a responsibility to protect our citizens."

Lott added that the safety and security of the public and the volunteers is the first consideration in any festival.

"I have been through the training myself and always pass along verbal and written instructions to anyone working with alcohol at an event," he said. "Whether it’s a small event like the Taste of Effingham or a larger event like the Effingham Oktoberfest, I want everyone involved to be aware of the rules and to be aware of who is being served. I even remind our workers that legally anyone can be refused service. And we always hire off-duty police to be on hand."

City attorney Rick Rafter pointed out that if something happens because of alcohol served at a city-sanctioned event, the courts will ask if the city took reasonable steps to protect the city and its citizens.

"I don’t think the number makes a difference," Hinely said of volunteer training. "I don’t care how many people you have certified, you’re still going to get sued."

Lott said what could be at stake is the future of non-profit festivals and events occurring in Springfield.

"I am not advocating that all events should include beer or wine," he said, "but for those that choose to, use common sense and at least follow what other established events do to put on fun and safe events for the community."

Stancell told council members that he was not taking a dime of contributions until he knew what the city wanted the group to do. If council members unanimously said that five people needed to certified, he would try to do that.

"For this event, that’s our compromise," he said. "By law, we can serve alcohol. But we are trying our best to be on your team. We’re going to do whatever you tell us to do. But I promise you it will affect how we do business in the future."