TAMPA — When a bar allows patrons to have drinks after the city's mandated 3 a.m. closing time, who should be held responsible — the owner, the manager or an employee?
Tampa's current ordinance is a little vague on this point, saying merely that a "business" cannot permit after-hours drinking. As a result, police have had difficulty bringing charges against anyone — owner, manager or employee.
"They can only go after, at this point, the patrons," assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert told City Council members Thursday. "When we were bringing charges against the managers, the judges were dismissing those cases, because the manager is not the business."
But a proposal to make the ordinance easier to enforce ran into an objection from council member Lisa Montelione.
Montelione said including the word "employee" in the ordinance along with "owner" and "manager" would allow bar owners and managers to blame their workers when establishments run afoul of the law. Employees, she said, are often college students working for minimum wage, and they shouldn't be held responsible for policies and practices set by people with more power.
"Business owners need to be held accountable," she said. "They're the ones who set the rules. They're the ones who set the tone. They're the ones that allow certain activities to take place within their establishments. Managers as well."
But if employees "don't do what they're told by the managers and the business owners, they get fired," Montelione said. "I don't want some person who's just trying to make ends meet be the scapegoat for those that really should be held responsible."
Other council members disagreed. Frank Reddick said exempting employees from the ordinance would excuse them from taking responsibility for their actions.
"If someone knowingly breaks the law, he's not innocent," council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said. "He has an obligation to say no, and the people who work in these establishments are adults."
Council chairman Charlie Miranda, who works as a state steward enforcing horse-racing rules at Tampa Bay Downs, said "the more people you put in, the harder it is to prosecute" because it's hard to divide accountability in multiple ways.
"In my other world that I work in, we make the trainer" accountable, Miranda said. "Whatever happens in that trainer's barn, he or she is responsible, and that's the end of it, so they know that."
Besides, a couple of council members said, employees could always sue if they were fired because they refused to violate the law.
"They're really, most of them, kids who are working in these establishments," countered Montelione, who doubted that many would sue an employer, and some can be as young as 18.
"Employees that we are talking about are — as some of us would consider because we don't want to admit we're getting old — children," said Montelione, 51, the mother of a 24-year-old who, she said, probably wouldn't go to a labor lawyer in such circumstances.
Capin said 18-year-olds can vote, enter into contracts and, if they're in the military, be court-martialed.
"Maybe we're coddling our adults a little bit too much in this country," she said. "Childhood has been extended to 21. Really?"
Most council members embraced the more inclusive version of the ordinance, voting 5-2 to approve the revisions with the word "employee" included. (Casting the dissenting votes were Montelione and Harry Cohen, who suggested postponing the decision for more discussion.) A second and final vote is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. May 2.