In short, the myth, “You can’t get a drink in Utah,” is alive and well.
Mike Mower, long-time Republican political operative, hustles down a Capitol staircase to a meeting. “I love it,” he says of his job as Gov. Gary Herbert’s deputy chief of staff. “As a kid in Ferron, I would have never have believed that someday I would be working in this beautiful building.”
Mower is good at his job. You would never guess from his Boy Scout enthusiasm that he was handed the nightmare task of controlling the spreading public rage at Utah’s dysfunctional Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. On this sunny afternoon, Mower cheerfully explains that the Governor’s Office’s scrutiny of the DABC is just a part of a state-wide efficiency program being implemented by Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.
In truth, DABC’s problems are vastly more politically perilous. Besides an avalanche of complaints, Mower is faced with DABC Commission meetings at which former employees, wine lovers and even a state senator leveled charges of employee abuse and gratuitous firings, inept customer service, security problems, inventory shortages and arrogant disregard of the state’s tourism economy that depends on providing quality wine and liquor. Utah hoteliers and restaurateurs bitterly complain that after a short period of progress under former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Utah is again the laughingstock of the world for its puritanical and absurd liquor laws.
“The morale at the DABC has never been lower,” says Brent Clifford, retired wine buyer at the agency for 37 years, who has become one of DABC management’s angriest and most knowledgable critics. “Employees feel they are under siege and badgered to constantly do more. And the current leadership is clueless.” Tracey Creno, a police officer who provides security at the Sandy store, complained of intimidation, spying and retaliation against employees. “I’ve had a gutfull of DABC,” she told the commission.
Sen. Karen Mayne, a West Valley City Democrat, tore into the DABC over “email after email” she had gotten from employees complaining of arrogant managers who bully them. Two wine experts quit the Metro Wine Store downtown in protest of their work environment and the decline in quality of selection. “[Selling alcohol and wine] is a skilled craft and should be treated that way,” Mayne told the commissioners at a public meeting. “We [the state] are generating millions of dollars from your business.”
The roiling controversy at the DABC has spread far enough to splatter Herbert.
“That’s how I got involved,” Mower explains his role. “If there isn’t enough time for people to meet with the governor, I meet with them. I look to see if some changes need to be made. I said, ‘Let’s get Kris’s team on the ground. Let’s see if there are changes that should be made—operational stuff.’ ”
But Clifford, who resigned in 2012 from the DABC, protesting the agency’s short-sighted shift to profits over quality, and other critics inside and outside of the agency aren’t optimistic Herbert will do much. “Mower’s one of the best political handlers out there,” says Clifford. “Gary Herbert wants the bad press to go away. He wants it to happen before he runs [for reelection]. I don’t believe he’s serious about fixing the issues down there.”
Others, including retired DABC Human Resources Specialist Kerri Adams, who has brought the employee complaints to the commission and Mower, also fears the governor’s office is doing little more than letting employees vent, hoping it will mollify them. After all, only the Legislature can make meaningful fixes and Adams and Clifford agree there is little appetite on the Hill for significant law changes to make liquor sales easier.