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Another investigation at City Hall?
Employees looking into lapse in alcohol hearings
beer bottle cutout

City employees are looking into why no alcoholic beverage license holders were brought to hearings before City Council for more than three years.

“Staff is going through and pulling all the information as it regards when compliance checks were done, where they were done, what citations, tickets, violations resulted from those checks, and then what happened to them after that,” Mayor Jan Moore said when asked about this Tuesday.

In an interview Wednesday, former City Manager Frank Parker said he was never in the loop for reporting these violations to the council. Instead, it had been the responsibility of the city attorney, Parker said, noting that that position went through changes just as the ordinance itself has done.

The city has given new attention to underage drinking since Aug. 28, when Michael Gatto, 18, a Georgia Southern University freshman, died after a violent encounter at Rude Rudy’s, then a nightclub in University Plaza.

A Sept. 24 City Council hearing on Rude Rudy’s license was aborted at takeoff by an offer from the owner to close the club and accept a permanent ban on being in the alcoholic beverages business in Statesboro. More hearings followed Oct. 7, when City Council issued warnings to six restaurants for one-time violations by serving drinks to underage customers.

But those seven hearings, as several City Council members noted, were the first of their kind in more than 3 1/2 years. Police did make cases all along against individuals in Municipal Court for misdemeanor criminal charges related to underage drinking, but the council hearings are a separate step — an administrative process, rather than a criminal one — to hold licensees accountable for what happens at their businesses.

After City Council members observed last week that the last previous hearings had occurred in February 2011, Moore said she had asked City Attorney Alvin Leaphart and interim City Manager Robert Cheshire to compile information on why the process had broken down.

Moore commented further after Nathan Queen, general manager of Retrievers and part owner of Dingus Magee’s, spoke to council, also during the Oct. 7 meeting.

Queen gave the council, and the Statesboro Herald, documents citing occurrences that he argued had given the city grounds to revoke the Rude Rudy’s license prior to Gatto’s death. In a written statement, Queen counted 10 violations from Feb. 9 through July 14. At least half were reflected in police citations, but others, such as a claim that some customers were nude there on Feb. 9, were based on reports of other incidents and did not result in criminal charges.

He alleged that Rude Rudy’s received special treatment from police, including a warning conversation rather than a charge, for violations such as operating long after hours.

“I think we as a community deserve some answers,” Queen told council. “Why did it take so long? That is my question here today. Why did it take the death of a young man before you took action?”

 

Former city manager

Replying to Queen, Moore noted that she took office in January and so was not part of the city government in 2011. Besides the hearings question, she said she wanted to know why compliance checks of underage sales apparently stopped from late 2013 until Gatto’s death.

Moore also referred to Parker, who had been fired by City Council in June for reasons unrelated to alcohol enforcement.

“I hope we look at it over the last 36 to 48 months, where was the problem? I’m willing to look. I’ve asked staff to look, I’ve said bring up dates, bring up times, bring up conversations, bring up whatever you need to jog your memory,” Moore added. “At the time we had a former city manager that’s not here. Questions need to be asked there.”

In his written statement, Queen said he had spoken to Parker, who said that none of the Rude Rudy’s violations was ever brought to his attention and that he would take a lie detector test if necessary to prove it.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Parker both confirmed he said that and added that he had never been responsible for reporting alcohol violations to the council.

“When the police write a violation, it goes to the clerk of the Municipal Court, and then those violations are brought up by city solicitor, which is also the city attorney, and they’re dealt with in Municipal Court,” Parker said. “If there’s a reason that the solicitor thinks it needs to be taken farther, then they would bring it to City Council.”

Previous City Solicitor Michael Graves always handled the cases that way, according to Parker

“I was just never in the loop on those sorts of things,” Parker said.

The one major exception, he said, had been during the city’s effort to deal with gun violence at the Platinum Lounge, when police compiled a file and presented it to him as city manager and to the mayor and council.

But generally, because the city attorney reports directly to council, Parker said, he would not have known of the attorney’s business unless the attorney informed him.

Graves was the city’s staff attorney on Feb. 15, 2011, when the council held hearings for six alcoholic beverage licenses. As Parker noted, the city had made Graves an employee while also retaining Sam Brannen, who died Jan. 6, 2011, and was ill before that time, as city attorney in private practice.

After Brannen’s death and Graves’ departure for another job that September, the city merged the responsibilities into a single city attorney’s post. Leaphart was hired in December 2011.

Months before Gatto’s death, Leaphart presented a draft of a new Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance. He and Public Safety Director Wendell Turner, at a public hearing on the proposed new ordinance in early June, said the current ordinance had left the city powerless to act on its own after violence, including deaths, at the Primetime Lounge and the Platinum Lounge in 2012 and 2013. The city resorted to Superior Court for orders to close those clubs.

But the city has acted under its existing ordinance with the seven recent hearings.

Parker noted that the ordinance underwent major revisions during his tenure and said he is confident that the city can improve it, but that it will never be perfect and must always be open to change.

With a 3-2 vote, City Council terminated Parker’s employment June 24 after he told department heads at a staff meeting that he had sometimes met in private with a majority of the council.

Whether Parker can have been part of Georgia Open Meetings Law violations or acted as a whistleblower is a point of contention in his wrongful firing suit against the city, pending in Bulloch County Superior Court.

Meanwhile, a city-ordered investigation by independent attorney Tom A. Peterson IV into whether the meeting violations occurred has yet to be completed. Some interview recordings remain to be transcribed, Moore told the council last week.

 

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

 

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