With a City Council hearing pending for Rude Rudy’s on Sept. 24, the city of Statesboro has scheduled six more establishments for an Oct. 7 administrative license hearing over whether they have served alcohol to patrons under age 21.
The Oct. 7 hearing will be part of the regular 9 a.m. City Council meeting. For each of the six restaurants whose licensees have been asked to appear that day, the allegation to be considered is whether they or their agents or employees served alcohol to underage patrons on a single date, Sept. 4 or Sept. 11.
In comparison, the earlier notice to Rudy Rudy’s owner Jonathan Starkey listed six allegations against the club’s alcohol license. The first allegation relates directly to the death of Michael Gatto, 18, after a beating that left him unconscious at Rude Rudy’s on Aug. 28. Statesboro police charged James Grant Spencer, 20, identified as a Rude Rudy’s bouncer, with murder as a result of Gatto’s death.
Another difference is, City Council called a special meeting for the Rude Rudy’s hearing, but has grouped the others together in a single regular meeting.
“In one sense it’s the same,” said City Attorney Alvin Leaphart. “It’s an administrative hearing to determine whether a violation has occurred and what sanctions are appropriate under the ordinance.”
Licensees notified to appear at the Oct. 7 hearing are Christopher Scott Springfield for South City Tavern on Chandler Road, Christian Bennett for GATA’s on Lanier Drive, Heath Robinson for Big Show’s Burgers and Bar on Lanier Drive, Thomas C. Jones for the Millhouse Steak House on Statesboro Place Circle, Scarlett May and Roger L. Collier for Ruby Tuesday on Northside Drive East, and Avel Leon for El Sombrero on Buckhead Drive.
Just as in Starkey’s case, these are the license holders, either business owners or managers, and they are not charged with any crime. Rather, the administrative hearing concerns license status.
Penalties are progressive under the ordinance, ranging from a warning or one-day license suspension to potential revocation of a license.
All seven of the establishments now scheduled for hearings are classified as restaurants, though some serve more food than others. Statesboro’s city alcohol law does not recognize any businesses as bars.
Mayor Jan Moore noted the upcoming hearings during Tuesday evening’s regular council meeting. The Statesboro Herald subsequently made a public records request for the hearing notices.
New alcohol law Jan. 1?
At the council meeting two weeks earlier, Moore had asked council members to consider, at this week’s meeting, some specific amendments to the Alcohol Ordinance, in advance of adopting a completely revised ordinance, slated to take effect July 1, 2015. One of the suggested amendments would empower the mayor and city manager, on a recommendation from the public safety director, to temporarily suspend an alcohol license when public safety is threatened, in advance of a hearing by City Council.
But the amendment discussion did not appear on Tuesday’s agenda. Instead, Moore during her public comments suggested a different approach, which she said came out of a conversation she had with Councilman Travis Chance, followed by some questions she had put to Leaphart.
“We’ve gone through the last two or three weeks where we’ve been applying our ordinance in a difficult situation,” Moore said. “We realize there are some nuances that need to be vetted or ferreted out, some definitions of some things that weren’t entirely clear.”
Chance, she said, had suggested pushing forward with the complete overhaul of ordinance, to make it effective sooner than July 1. But Leaphart had told Moore, she said, that some parts of the ordinance might need to be addressed before others.
Moore asked Leaphart to update the council Oct. 7 on whether the new ordinance can be put into effect Jan. 1. Then, she said, she will look at scheduling another public input meeting on the ordinance during October.
After the meeting, Chance confirmed that he had talked to Moore about moving up the effective date to Jan. 1 for the entire new ordinance or as much of it as can be made effective then. The significance of July 1 is as the effective date of license renewals.
But Chance said he would also be willing to discuss making amendments effective before Jan. 1.
“I’m more than willing to have the conversation,” he said. “We’re definitely trying to figure out how to be as proactive as we can, rather than reactive.”
The hearings, Chance said, also reflect a change, as he could recall only one alcohol violation hearing in the previous four years.
“We are desperately trying to change the atmosphere and the process of City Hall and make sure that issues as they come up are handled and not, metaphorically speaking, swept under the rug,” Chance said. “For almost four years we had only one alcohol hearing. If council doesn’t know about something, how can council address it?”
Moore took office as mayor in January, and the council in June fired then-City Manager Frank Parker by a 3-2 vote for reasons unrelated to alcohol enforcement. Parker has recently filed a lawsuit against the city over his firing.
The alcohol license hearings follow recent compliance checks by police at restaurants and clubs all over town, resulting in misdemeanor criminal citations against customers or guests for underage drinking, as well as a few against specific individuals for furnishing alcohol to people under age 21.
The spate of compliance checks, in turn, follows Gatto’s death. He was a Georgia Southern University freshman from Cumming, a town in the Atlanta metro area, and parents of GSU students from far outside Statesboro have been demanding action here on underage drinking. Some have contacted the newspaper as well and told of conversations with city and university officials.
Asked Wednesday whether there has been a crackdown, Moore said she has not been talking to the police on a day-to-day basis about how they are enforcing the ordinance and so could not speak on what they have been doing.
“However, it would appear based on the number of citations that there is some sort of systemic issue in our community as regards serving minors, but at this point I cannot gauge the depth and the breadth of it,” Moore said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.