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Conversation Between DWI Taskforce and Hospitality Resource Panal, Part 1

Numerous discussions have occurred in recent months about whether or not underage patrons should be allowed in Springfield bars and clubs.

Now, Greene County Sheriff Jack Merritt is working to get a petition signed that could put the issue in front of Springfield voters. KSMU's Matt Petcoff sat down with Merritt to discuss what he hopes to accomplish with this petition. Tomorrow, we'll bring you the perspective of those who want restrictions rather than an outright ban on minors in bars. Now, here are excerpts from Matt Petcoff's conversation with Greene County Sheriff Jack Merritt.

Merritt: We're real close to having the numbers we need but we're planning to go above that because we may have some sign it who aren't residents of Springfield, who aren't registered voters, different things like this. Every petition encounters this. It requires about 1400 registered voters who live in Springfield.

Petcoff: If you get those signatures, what happens?

Merritt: The verbiage on the petition which basically prohibits those under the age of 21 from being in bars. That will be placed on the ballot in November and the voters will make the choice.

Petcoff: Why is this topic being discussed now...There have been bars in Springfield for years...

Merritt: In the month of March alone, my officers made 98 minors in possession cases. Every statistic shows you the beginning age of alcoholics is lessening each year. Other statistics show the more opportunities there are for young people to drink, the more they will drink. More institutions where they can drink, then the drinking becomes more frequent.

Petcoff: How do minors get the alcohol in the bars? Do they use fake IDs or having older friends buying them alcohol.

Merritt: One bar owner was at the DWI Task Force meeting. He said, "I assure you if you have minors in the bars, they will figure a way to drink." Now, there's a stamp or arm band to show they're a minor. They can wash that off or get rid of the arm band. But in the most cases, someone's probably buying it for them.

Petcoff: Have any studies been done to see how this would effect the revenue that's generated downtown?

Merritt: The bar owners say they're not drinking so if they're not allowed in bars, it wouldn't lessen it that much. So if they're not drinking, they're not spending money. It would be a matter of cover charges and that kind of things. I think it will be an opportunity for other venues to develop that would accommodate underage patrons.

Petcoff: Some people say that taking minors out of bars will create problems elsewhere.

Merritt: What we see now is that they're having parties other places. We're dealing with those right now. I don't think it's going to increase that much. There's been speculation that something will open up out in the county and that's something we'll deal with if that happens. I think if we concentrate on this problem, we'll lessen it.

Petcoff: Who's part of your group working to push this forward.

Merritt: The force behind this is the DWI Task Force: MADD, Medical Society, Highway Patrol, City Police. And this has been difficult for city police. They've pretty well stood in the center on this topic. I don't think the DWI Task Force should make this decision. I don't think the Hospitality Panel, whose funding and whose group is made up of bars should make the decision. I think the decision needs to be made by the citizens of Springfield.