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Mayor suggests amending Statesboro alcohol ordinance soon

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Posted: September 3, 2014 5:51 p.m.
Updated: September 3, 2014 5:44 p.m.
Mayor suggests amending Statesboro alcohol ordinance soon

The death of 18-year-old Michael Gatto after a beating last week at Rude Rudy's prompted Mayor Jan Moore to propose Wednesday that City Council consider specific changes in its existing Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance, in advance of the replacement ordinance slated to take effect next July 1.

Gatto, a Georgia Southern University student from Cumming, received head injuries and was unresponsive when officers arrived at the club in University Plaza at 12:43 a.m. Thursday, according to Statesboro Police Department reports. He died later that day, and police have since charged James Grant Spencer, 20, a Rude Rudy's bouncer, with murder.

Moore first expressed condolences to Gatto's family and said police are working around the clock to investigate.

"I have had many, many, many calls and emails from parents, concerned citizens, regarding this issue," she added, "and the question has been why the city did not immediately shut down Rude Rudy's after this tragic incident."

Last November, the city obtained orders from Bulloch County Superior Court to padlock Primetime Lounge and Platinum Lounge after repeated violence, including a shooting death at each. But City Attorney Alvin Leaphart and Public Safety Director Wendell Turner later said the court orders were necessary because the existing ordinance left the city powerless to act on its own.

City officials have been discussing, off and on for months, a complete overhaul of the city alcohol law. After two public hearings, including one to which the city specifically invited and heard input from license holders, the new ordinance has yet to be adopted.

"We were trying to get to a point where we can enact the new ordinance that will allow us to look at situations like this, and that will go into effect this coming July 1, 2015," Moore said.

July 1 is the date alcohol license renewals take effect.

Current ordinance

The current alcohol ordinance does not allow the city to shut down a business short of multiple violations and several procedural steps, Moore observed.

The ordinance does provide for fines up to $1,000. It also permits a one-day license suspension for a first-time violation of the ordinance, a three-day suspension after a second violation, 10 days for a third, 30 days for a fourth and revocation after a fourth violation in a 12-month period.

But the fines must be imposed by Municipal Court, and each suspension step first requires a hearing before City Council. Leaphart has previously pointed out that the existing ordinance does not make violence by patrons a basis for alcohol license violations.

Moore announced Wednesday that she had asked Leaphart to pull out parts of the drafted new ordinance having to do with public safety and present them as a possible near-term amendment to the current ordinance. Leaphart supplied printed copies of the suggested amendment.

Suspensions, clearing premises

A key passage would empower the city manager, at the request of the public safety director and with the mayor's consent, to suspend an alcoholic beverage licenses in the interest of public safety.

A "temporary" hearing before City Council would be required within three business days to determine whether the suspension should remain in effect or conditions be placed on the business reopening, pending a final hearing within 30 days.

Another section would prohibit disorderly conduct, serving more drinks to noticeably intoxicated patrons, and gambling other than licensed bingo and Georgia Lottery games. It would also require the owner or manager to maintain order inside and outside an establishment and in its parking lots and other outside areas.

A third section would require that restaurants and clubs clear their premises of everyone except employees with 45 minutes after last-call serving deadlines. Last call would be 1 a.m., just as it is currently, Monday through Saturday nights, and midnight on Sunday for restaurants with Sunday sales. The current Sunday last-call is 11 p.m., but with "consumption" allowed until midnight.

Moore did not ask for a vote at Wednesday's meeting — which was on an unusual day of the week because of Labor Day — but said she would ask council to consider the amendments for a possible vote at the next meeting.

"The reason I think this is important is because there's a tremendous amount of concern in our community and outside of our community, and they're asking, ‘What, as a city, can you do?' and this would allow the city in future cases to have some teeth to be able to do something."

Each case different

Citizens have also asked Moore why the city doesn't go to Superior Court for an injunction, as it did in the Platinum Lounge and Primetime cases, Moore said. She asked Leaphart to explain the differences.

The Platinum Lounge, Leaphart said, was producing "general noise and mayhem" near residences, the Statesboro Herald's offices across the street, and other businesses.

"On top of this, there were numerous occasions of gunfire outside the club. There was an increased police presence," Leaphart said. "There was overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that it was a public nuisance, and the court adjudicated it as such."

The Primetime case, he said, evolved differently. The city put up some evidence of a public nuisance based on violence that occurred outside and noise problems.
"That evidence wasn't very compelling, it seemed to me," Leaphart said.

But during the trial, city officials discovered the club had not disclosed its true owners, and City Council revoked the license because of the fraudulent application.

The facts about Rude Rudy's are more similar to the Primetime case in that the city would probably have a harder time having it declared a nuisance, Leaphart said. He also observed that, in order to get the court to use "rarely exercised" powers, the city had to show that it had no other remedy.

"We had to tell the court that our ordinance wasn't sufficient to deal with this problem, that we couldn't manage it ourselves and we needed the court's help," Leaphart said. "I think the court expects us to clean up our own house. If we don't, if we were to go back there, I'm not sure that we would get the reception we got the first time."

Council members did not discuss the suggested amendment during Wednesday's meeting. Moore's suggestion was not on the agenda, but she included it in the "other business" segment, and the meeting was adjourned soon afterward.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.


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