By John Kanelis
Special Projects Reporter
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has announced plans to conduct "sting" operations across the state in advance of spring break.
TABC agents will be on the hunt for businesses that are serving alcohol to minors or that are serving alcohol to individuals who have consumed too much of it already.
For West Texas agents, though, it means they'll be asked to travel far and wide enforcing state drinking laws while they seek to educate the public about the dangers of underage drinking and alcohol abuse in general.
Just as legislative and congressional district boundaries have been "adjusted" to conform to changes in Texas population patterns, so are the boundaries assigned to TABC agents, according to Major Mark Menn, who heads a sprawling West Texas division that covers 96 counties and roughly the "western third of the state."
That's about 90,000 square miles, but Menn said he's gotten used to the lengthy drives through West Texas. "I'm on the road a lot," he said. As the state's population growth continues in places east and south of the Panhandle and South Plains, the state has been asking TABC agents to travel farther to do their jobs.
TABC has gone through considerable change over the years, Menn said, as the agency gets funded "from Legislature to Legislature." Menn operates out of the regional TABC headquarters office in Lubbock, but he oversees offices in Amarillo, Odessa, Abilene and El Paso.
"The state decided to reallocate limited resources" by shifting manpower to more populated areas in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, Menn said.
He explained that TABC now has 250 agents deployed across the state.
Three of them work in the Amarillo office and are responsible for enforcement, licensing and auditing of businesses that serve alcoholic beverages throughout the entire Panhandle.
TABC's duties also include special investigations that look into activities such as money laundering and human trafficking, Menn said, explaining that there "certainly is an organized crime component" at work in the state.
Menn, who's been a TABC officer for more than two decades, said that "bars get involved in these activities" and, yes, they do "serve alcohol to minors." It's TABC's responsibility to enforce the law to try as best that it can to keep alcohol away from people who aren't of legal age to consume it.
Menn, though, sees his agency's role as far more than just enforcing the law. He talked about an educational component as well. "TABC is primarily a regulatory agency," he said. "Our job isn't just to police the community. It also is to regulate businesses."
Menn said TABC does work with local enforcement and regulatory agencies as well. Danny Cornelius, code enforcement director for the City of Canyon, said his community "doesn't have a huge number of businesses seeking permits to sell alcohol." Indeed, the city only recently has allowed the sale of alcohol as a result of a two-pronged municipal referendum approved by voters.
One part of the measure, Cornelius said, was to allow businesses to sell beer and wine for "off-premises consumption." The other part was to allow the sale of "mixed beverages in restaurants where the sale of food constitutes 51 percent or more of the business's gross sales receipts."
Businesses seeking permission to sell alcohol submit their applications to the city secretary's office, Cornelius said. The city reviews the application and if it's approved, it goes to the Randall County Clerk's Office for approval and then on to TABC for its "final approval," Cornelius said.
He noted that TABC then has the authority to audit the records of those businesses to ensure that they are complying with city regulations.
One regulation involves proximity to certain other institutions. The city places what Cornelius called "separation requirements" on businesses that want to sell alcohol. They cannot be less than 300 feet from churches, schools or hospitals, Cornelius explained, adding that "of course, we don't have a hospital here."
He also said that measuring those distances can be a bit tricky. The 300-foot restriction involving churches, he said, means it must 300 feet "from front door to front door following a public right-of-way." He said using that rule, "A business that sells alcohol can be right next
door to a church and still be OK."
The emphasis at TABC has "changed dramatically over the years," Menn said. "We much prefer to get voluntary compliance from businesses," he said, explaining that's where the educational element comes into play.
Menn said often citizens will call TABC to inform the agency that their underage children have
been "obtaining alcohol from a business."
"We're trying to change our image," he said. "We like a high (voluntary) compliance rate."
The Amarillo office currently lacks a sergeant on duty, but has three agents, including a "senior agent," Menn said. In the vast West Texas district he oversees, Menn said he supervises 21 agents, four sergeants and two lieutenants. The Amarillo office -- on Bell Street -- used to have "five to six officers" on duty, until the "reallocation" occurred some years ago.
Even though TABC "always has been a regulatory agency," Menn said the organization is "trying to change our approach to enforcement. We don't police individuals so much."
Menn also added that TABC now "does a lot more plainclothes work, more than we used to do." He said that the agency also does a good bit of "joint investigative work" with local police agencies.
He said that TABC seeks "to give citizens a high degree of service."
Menn acknowledged that many Texans think of TABC as "being a bunch of party poopers." He added, "That's until you're affected by someone who's been driving drunk. Our mission is to reduce the threat to public safety."
Part of the strategy, he said, is to ensure that businesses that serve alcoholic beverages do not "over serve" customers. They shouldn't give customers who are inebriated too much to drink. Under state law, a business owner can be held liable if a customer is too drunk to drive and then is involved in an accident that results in significant property damage, not to mention injury or death.
Each agent across the state "ideally will have about 200 businesses in their area," Menn said.