Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier Monday night responded to those who have for the past several months maintained that his social host ordinance, which aims to criminalize adults who host underage drinkers in private settings, weighs too heavily on personal liberties.
"I don't see this as government overreaching," he told members of the governing body and a smattering of locals gathered in council's Pine Street chambers.
Strohmaier wants to make it a misdemeanor for adults to host groups of three or more people under 21 years old that consume alcohol. Those found guilty under his proposal would be subject to a $500 fine plus costs of police hours tallied writing tickets. Two-time offenders would face two days in jail.
"Folks are dying on our streets and highways as a result of DUI," Strohmaier says. "To the extent that underage drinking is a component of (drunk driving), this is my honest attempt to try to offer up something constructive to try to address that."
Council peers, however, panned the proposal when Strohmaier first rolled it out in December. They called it intrusive. Some even dubbed the ordinance "nanny-state-ism."
"In general, I'm not a big fan of the abolition approach to alcohol problems," which is "essentially what drives this effort," says Councilman Bob Jaffe. "It still pushes the edge of criminalizing more people for actions taking place in our own homes."
Strohmaier couldn't sell the pitch to council peers Monday night. They dropped the underage category to 18, lowered the fine and eliminated the jail time on the second offense, before passing the ordinance. The law will likely again come up for debate next week.
And Strohmaier will no doubt be ready to continue the conversation.
He's become adept at such political wrangling during his six years on council. He's also grown accustomed to being accused of treading too heavily on civil liberties. "Absolutely, there are those times where I've taken controversial stands," he says. "And I'm totally comfortable doing so."
His thickening skin will help if he opts to run for the U.S. House of representatives next year. He's mulling over a bid for Rep. Denny Rehberg's seat, something he calls "a distinct possibility."
An environmental historian by profession, Strohmaier has two master's degrees, one from Yale and another from the University of Montana. His Millennium Building office overlooking the Clark Fork River is dotted with pictures of his wife and watercolor drawings made by his children, ages 4 and 7. He says he often thinks about his kids—envisioning the community he wants to shape for them—when drafting legislation.
The balding, soft-spoken, 46-year-old Strohmaier is one of the council's most prolific members. He's also responsible for introducing a slew of legislation that aims to curb what he sees as destructive personal behaviors that spill over into public life.
As a fledgling councilman in 2006, Strohmaier introduced legislation that now makes it illegal for children to ride in pickup truck beds. In 2007, he unsuccessfully backed a law mandating that minors wear bicycle helmets. In 2009, he tried to ban cell phone use while driving. Mayor John Engen vetoed much of that last proposal, leaving a texting prohibition in place. A notable win for Strohmaier came last year when, with the cooperation of a council majority, he beefed up punishment for motorists who refuse a law enforcement request for a sobriety test.
Missoula had classified refusal as a civil offense punishable with a six-month driver's license suspension. Strohmaier argued that made it far too easy to skate on a drunk driving charge; the council was obligated to act in order to stem a tide of drunk driving tragedies. He proposed making refusal a misdemeanor punishable with a $500 fine.
That didn't sit well with the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Just labeling someone as a criminal for wanting to assert their Fourth Amendment right is troubling," Montana ACLU Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic said in April 2010.
The proposal became law. And he won't apologize for his efforts to regulate behavior.
Strohmaier has an ally in Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, who has supported Strohmaier's social host ordinance and the proposed ban on using cell phones in cars, which Strohmaier hasn't abandoned, as well as increased penalties for refusing a sobriety test. "From a law enforcement perspective, we appreciate legislative initiatives that strive to bring into practice better safety," Muir says. "What I see is an overwhelming desire on his part to make our community a safer place."
Strohmaier might be bidding to be Missoula's nanny, but he's not one-dimensional. Months after the ACLU criticized his sobriety test legislation, the organization awarded him, along with fellow council member Stacy Rye, its Jeannette Rankin Award, in recognition of the pair's sponsorship of the city's nondiscrimination ordinance. The first law of its kind in the state, it bans discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender expression.
Strohmaier says all of his lawmaking efforts come from the same place: He just wants to keep Missoula a welcoming and safe community for everyone.