By Steve Woodhouse Editor
The Journal Express
---- — A.J. Mottet, owner of Dingus Lounge, faced the possible suspension of his liquor license for 10 days due to violations alleged by the Knoxville Police Department (KPD). Mottet hoped to avoid this and offered to pay a fine. After much discussion and multiple votes, Mottet was fined $1,000 by the Knoxville City Council Monday night.
During a hearing regarding the future of the bar's liquor license, Mottet was represented by John Billingsley of Newton. Billingsley called witnesses to the council chambers to tell their stories about the nights in question, and to speak to Mottet's character in general.
In response to an anonymous complaint received by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, the KPD performed two “bar checks” after 2 a.m. Dec. 15-16. On the first night, officers allegedly found patrons and employees in the bar, with beverages in front of them, at 2:10 a.m. Iowa law requires non-employees to leave liquor establishments by 2 a.m. The next night, there were still people in the after hours, but no beverages were present. Mottet's defense is that he and his staff offer rides home to customers, to ensure that these individuals, and the public, remain safe.
“There were two people there after two o'clock waiting for a ride home,” Billingsley said.
Deanna Wahl, a part-time bartender at Dingus, was at the bar as a patron on Dec. 15. She helped clean after closing and when the officers arrived, employees were still in the process of cleaning. On the second night, Wahl testified that people were waiting for rides.
Councilor April Verwers asked why the bar did not ask the customers to wait outside. Wahl said that it was too cold to ask them to do so.
“We feel a responsibility to our patrons,” another bartender, Katelyn Haning, said. She said the incidents were misunderstandings and that the bar was not ignoring the law. Haning was not present either night in question.
“I don't know AJ that well,” local businessman Rick Van Donsler said. He shared the story of how Mottet offered to ensure that one of Van Donsler's employees, with a drinking problem, always had a ride home. The employee had several issues with law enforcement before this promise was made. Since Mottet made the pledge, Van Donsler says the employee has had no issues.
“We haven't had any claims from Dingus,” Megan McKay-Ziller, insurance agent for Dingus, told the council, in regard to liability for alcohol-related accidents. She added that, from a risk-management perspective, she is glad Mottet keeps people in the bar to provide a safe ride home.
“They are worried about getting in trouble,” Mottet said of his customers. “They can't afford it.”
He said he and his staff have taken people home at all hours of the night. Mottet also reminded the council of his charitable contributions, and the tax revenue his bar has produced over the past 12 years.
“I like the town,” Mottet said. “I choose to live here.”
Mottet told the council that he believes he has a good relationship with Police Chief Dan Losada and the KPD overall. Losada agreed. Mottet asked to pay a fine instead of taking a 10-day suspension, as the closure of his business for that time would financially hurt his employees.
Losada said the KPD has not had a problem with other bars having people out by 2 a.m. He said he has had “minimal problems” with Dingus, but the fact that people were found in the establishment after hours, on two consecutive nights, raises concern. The rule has been in effect in Knoxville since the 1980s, before Losada was hired by the City.
Mottet was disappointed that his bar was checked due to an anonymous letter. He called the unsigned complaint “chicken.”
“We still have to investigate,” Losada said. He said Mottet's claims were accurate, and he applauded Mottet for trying to keep people safe, but a method needs to be found that falls within the code.
This was not the first time the council has addressed this issue with Dingus. It occurred in 2006, and according to Councilor Elsie Kemp, the bar's story of giving people rides home was the same then.
“We have rules and if you don't have consequences, rules don't work,” added Verwers. Councilor Dave Roozeboom agreed. After more discussion, Councilor Carolyn Formanek said it was established that a penalty needed to be imposed.
“I think AJ would agree with that,” Councilor Tim Pitt said. “I feel that a fine would be more appropriate (than a suspension).”
Pitt made a motion to fine Mottet $300. Roozeboom seconded the motion, saying it, “sounds like it would make (Mottet) think.”
“I just don't think that's reasonable,” Verwers said. “I would be happy with a five-day (suspension).”
A vote was taken on Pitt's motion, with Pitt and Roozeboom voting in favor of it. Verwers, Kemp and Formanek voted nay.
Verwers then made a motion to suspend the liquor license for five days, which Kemp seconded.Verwers was the only council member to vote in favor of this motion.
Formanek then motioned for the $1,000 fine. This motion passed 4-1, with Pitt voting against. The fine was due Tuesday.
“I can live with that,” Mottet said. “My staff can still earn a living.”
Mottet intended to get in touch with Losada, to find a resolution to the issue of safely transporting people home from bars.