Nothing came as much of a surprise to Dr. Jennifer Eddy when she worked in inner city Chicago as a health practitioner, often treating and assisting heroin addicts.
But when Eddy began practicing in Eau Claire, she was immediately shocked. She found herself treating 20- and 30-somethings suffering from pancreatitis, often caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Sixteen-year-olds told her about how they had given up binge drinking after it had derailed their health and their lives in some way or another.
“How we use alcohol here is just really different,” said Eddy, who serves as co-chair of the high-risk drinking action team for Eau Claire Healthy Communities, a multiagency effort to improve heath in Eau Claire. “Every place has its own problems — this is one of ours.”
But Eddy is feeling especially hopeful, as the first reading of the Excessive Public Intoxication Ordinance will come before the Eau Claire City Council on Tuesday. The council will further discuss the matter, and eventually vote on it, in October.
“I’m really impressed with the community that they’ve had this hard discussion, despite opposing opinions at the start,” Eddy said. “This is almost more exciting, to me, than passing the ordinance.”
She, and others in the community — fellow health officials, city officials, neighborhood leaders, tavern owners and students — feel as though the new ordinance may trigger the start of a culture change that no longer glorifies excessive drinking.
A drinking problem
Binge drinking has long been a problem in Eau Claire and has been included as a top health priority in the annual Eau Claire County Community Health Assessment for years, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. This year, alcohol misuse ranked as the county’s third most important health issue.
According to the assessment, 1 in 4 people in Eau Claire County reported engaging in binge drinking. In addition, 31 percent of driving deaths in the county involved alcohol.
Binge drinking also has an economic burden — according to 2013 data, excessive alcohol use costs an Eau Claire County resident about $1,624 per year, about $400 more than the statewide rate.
And those statistics caught national attention over the years — this year, a USA Today report ranked Eau Claire the second drunkest city in America. Eau Claire was one of 10 Wisconsin cities to make the list.
But the community also agrees it’s an issue — according to the 2018 Community Health Assessment, 72 percent of county residents believe the top reason alcohol misuse is a problem is that it’s an “accepted attitude or belief,” and 44 percent define the topic as a moderate problem.
Giese said community awareness of the issue appears to have grown alongside the controversy surrounding the excessive public intoxication ordinance, though getting to the latest version took some time.
The original ordinance, then referred to as the public good ordinance, drew controversy in March when it was initially proposed to City Council.
The ordinance would’ve allowed police to issue citations to people for yelling, disturbing or “otherwise annoying” others in a public space, to people for causing physical neighborhood disruption or to those who are publicly intoxicated in a way that makes them a threat to themselves or others.
It also proposed no more than 10 riders be allowed to be dropped off anywhere between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. in any single block of the Randall Park and 3rd Ward neighborhoods if a rider doesn’t live there. This caused the Right Way Shuttle Bus, which had for years provided a safe ride home to students who may have been drinking, to end its services.
College students felt targeted and that they weren’t included in conversations about the ordinance; nearby neighbors expressed frustrations at frequent, loud partying and other irresponsible behaviors related to excessive drinking.
After deciding to table the public good ordinance, the council formed a Neighborhood Safety and Relations Task Force that included representatives from the city, health department, law enforcement agencies, neighborhood associations, taverns and local colleges.
Giese facilitated six meetings — more than what was originally anticipated. But the meetings not only included redrafting and renaming the ordinance, they also included general conversations regarding prevalent community issues that included alcohol but went beyond that.
Changes to the ordinance included the creation of a diversion program that would allow violators to take a class to get the fine dropped, clarifications of some vague language defining public intoxication and removing the limits on private shuttle buses included in the last ordinance, among other things.
But what was most remarkable to Giese about the meetings? That everyone included in the task force did agree there is an alcohol problem in the community that needs to be addressed — a sure sign of further progress in the future.
“I think this might be a push to get things done and may be a new landing spot for initiatives,” Giese said. “We can’t keep laughing about a place where we have too much alcohol abuse — we have to start doing something about it. And it’s not that six meetings is going to change that culture immediately, but I think this is a really good foundation for the ongoing conversation.”
Starting a culture change?
Giese wasn’t the only one to feel a shift after the task force meetings, and on the brink of resubmitting the ordinance to the City Council.
Groups that initially didn’t support the ordinance have now voiced their support, including the Third Ward Neighborhood Association, which unanimously voted in support.
The Randall Park Neighborhood Association won’t officially vote on the ordinance until its October meeting, but Nic Ashman, who represented the association at the task force meeting, said she felt the changes were productive.
“I think as a whole the community is finally starting to understand the intent of the ordinance, regardless of how it was worded,” Ashman said. “It’s not about the bus, it’s not about someone having a little too much fun in their early 20s — it’s that we have a problem in the community with binge drinking and substance abuse.”
UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senate also voted in support of the ordinance, but student President Branden Yates also said he hopes the community understands that college students aren’t solely to blame for the excessive drinking culture in the community, noting other cities that topped USA Today’s drunkest cities list aren’t home to universities. Appleton, which ranked third in the study, does not have a large university, for example.
“This is an issue all over Wisconsin,” Yates said. “We want to continue building a relationship with the community, and hopefully we can go through this culture change together, with us students part of the conversation.”
Eddy agreed, stating statistics show that binge drinking prevails across all age groups in the community and the country.
“It’s really easy to blame the college students,” she said. “But it’s not their problem; it’s our problem. It’s great the university is getting involved, but it’s a problem we all share and we have to be involved in the solution.”
Dino Amundson, president of the Eau Claire chapter of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, also voiced support for the revised ordinance. Though it was another member of the Tavern League who attended the task force meetings, Amundson said he appreciated the deliberation and collaboration involved.
“I think it’s something that’s going to benefit a lot of people to help cut back on public intoxication,” Amundson said. “It’s not going to discourage people from going out and having a good time and having a few cocktails — but what it does is discourage the people who like to cause trouble or pick fights or have too much.”
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