By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Alarmed by statistics that show a high level of underage alcohol consumption in the community, Cloverdale City Council members are crafting an ordinance that targets adults who allow teen drinking parties.
The “Social Host Ordinance,” a tool already used in three other cities in Sonoma County, allows officers to impose criminal and civil penalties on adults if there is underage drinking in their homes.
It enables the city to recover police costs and even impose criminal charges on hosts.
“We are responding to very disturbing information that came in a study,” City Councilwoman Carol Russell said, referring to statistics that showed 27 percent of Cloverdale’s seventh-graders consumed alcohol regularly, compared with 15 percent statewide.
The California Healthy Kids Survey of school children also found Cloverdale youths seventh grade through high school admitted to binge drinking and being very drunk and/or sick from alcohol at nearly twice the rate as the state average.
“We’re trying to stem that as best we can,” Vice-Mayor Bob Cox said.
“Cloverdale for at least five years has had the highest rate of underage drinking of all the (school) districts around the county, followed by places like Healdsburg and Sonoma,” said Danielle Ronshausen-Moreno, former coordinator for the Cloverdale and Sonoma Valley Coalitions to Prevent Underage Drinking.
She said that typically there are higher rates of alcohol use among teens in rural communities.
”A lot of people think it’s because they have absolutely nothing to do in those areas,” she said.
To help deter underage drinking, the ordinance would allow the city to hold property owners and others responsible for allowing or tolerating teen drinking at a residence or private property.
They would be subject to infractions and misdemeanors, carrying potential jail time and a fine.
If police had to respond more than once in a year, the hosts and even a landlord could be subject to paying the police costs on second and subsequent incidents.
Liens and special assessments could be made against the property.
Petaluma, Sonoma, and Sebastopol have enacted similar laws in the past few years.
Advocates say it can help prevent parents and older siblings from being lax about alcohol use by minors.
“We’re trying to give adults a little leverage to say ‘No way I’m providing alcohol. Number one, it’s illegal and there will be severe citations,’ ” said Eugene Lile, a retired Cloverdale High School principal who supports the proposed ordinance.
“The biggest effect is it sends a message to the community that underage drinking will no longer be tolerated as the norm,” said Ronshausen-Moreno.
In focus groups that she conducted with students from Cloverdale, she said the top two reasons they cited for drinking is “they think parents are OK with them drinking and alcohol is very easy to get their hands on.”
According to information cited by the California PTA, a national study indicates that social host laws reduce binge drinking and driving in communities where they are enacted.
Cloverdale police chief Mark Tuma, who worked on the subcommittee that came up with the draft ordinance, could not be reached for comment Friday or Monday.
“A lot of time, police show up and it’s difficult to determine who furnishes the alcohol. It’s hard to cite the adult,” said Ronshausen-Moreno.
She said the new law will give Cloverdale police the tools to cite those who provided the venue for the party.
Cloverdale officials said they know the ordinance won’t magically solve the problem of teen alcohol abuse.
“It’s naive to think it will end it, “ said Russell, but she said it could help decrease incidents.
“I’m hoping this is the beginning of a city-wide education program to provide activities for kids, particularly teens and young adults” that are alcohol-free, she said.
Cox said the ordinance is expected to be considered by the City Council On Dec. 14.
Edit0r’s Note: This story was updated on Nov. 2, 2012, to more precisely describe the way the ordinance will be enforced.