Police slam council deal on all-night bars

Police are calling foul over a deal they say was struck between Wellington City Council and Hospitality NZ to allow the capital's bars to stay open later.

Internal council emails - obtained through court records this week - show many of the final details of the city's local alcohol plan were hammered out in a closed meeting with bar owners before it was opened to public submissions.

They also show the council and Mayor Celia Wade-Brown were in regular contact with local Hospitality NZ president Jeremy Smith, including consulting him on strategies for avoiding Government-imposed closing times.

The council has said it treated all "stakeholders" equally, and it also held meetings with police before the policy went out for public submissions.

It is understood police are upset about the industry's involvement in forming the proposed rules. During a hearing on the policy last week, a police lawyer said the council pushed a "deal" with the hospitality industry before the public had their say.

"There are a number of meetings between council officers and Hospitality New Zealand, and then there appears to be an agreement that 5am would be an acceptable [closing] time, and that is what we've ended up with."

Since new national liquor laws came into force in December, all bars have had to turn off their taps after 4am, while off-licences, such as supermarkets and bottle stores, have had to stop selling alcohol from 11pm.

But the legislation allows councils to tweak the rules to reflect their communities' views. So far, Wellington is the only city to push a later closing time for bars, with a proposal for "best practice" operators to stay open till 5am in the central city.

That has pitted the council - supported by the alcohol, supermarket and hospitality industries - against police and health authorities, who argued before the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority last week that the council's policy should be thrown out.

Council emails show that on June 5 last year - two weeks before the draft local alcohol policy was made public - officers met privately with Hospitality NZ members, including Smith, and agreed to recommend the "best practice" bars remain open till 5am.

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In return for reaching a position "acceptable to on-licence representatives", bar owners were asked to stop criticising the council through the media.

The emails also show Wade-Brown met Smith socially and the pair discussed ways of avoiding the national 4am default closing time, which they feared would disrupt the Wellington sevens tournament. Smith suggested granting bars "bulk" special licences or instructing local regulators to simply "agree to ignore that prevailing legislation", the emails said. Neither proposal went ahead.

Neither police nor the council would comment before the authority reached a decision, but Wade-Brown said "early engagement with stakeholders with a range of viewpoints" was a normal part of consulting.

Smith said police suggestions Hospitality NZ received preferential treatment was a "load of crap"

 - The Dominion Post

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