Six Statesboro restaurants and bars have their city alcoholic beverage licenses suspended beginning 8 a.m. Thursday for three to 21 days. City Council unanimously approved the administrative penalties Tuesday for selling alcohol to customers under age 21.
All but one of the suspensions came through consent orders agreed to by business owners or managers and the Statesboro Police Department.
But an explanation of certain penalties prompted a council member and the mayor to say that the five-year “look-back” the 2016 Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance allows for prior violations is excessive.
First, Gata’s Sports Bar & Grill got a 21-day suspension, for a fourth violation in five years. Then Ruby Tuesday’s Statesboro restaurant franchise got a 17-day license suspension, also for a fourth violation. But three of Gata’s violations were in 2016 and 2015, while all but the most recent one of Ruby Tuesday’s were from 2013 and 2014.
“We’re also looking at not only the number of violations, but also the age of them,” explained interim Police Chief Rob Bryan. “As they’re getting older in that five-year look-back period, we’re also weighting them less.”
Although the new ordinance went through more than a year of council discussions, work sessions with public input and revisions by former City Attorney Alvin Leaphart, the look-back window was never discussed much. The old ordinance, as amended in December 2011, considered only a 12-month history of violations. The new one, adopted by the council last March, extended the look-back to 60 months.
“I’ll say unbeknownst to council that this was changed to five years look-back, though it was never discussed,” District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum said during Tuesday’s meeting.
“If this was a two-year look-back, then this would be a first violation,” Boyum added, referring to the Ruby Tuesday case.
Mayor Jan Moore agreed that five years is too long.
“Three years is reasonable,” Moore said. “I think two years can be too short. But three years, which I think the state looks back, I think it’s a reasonable time.”
Boyum said, “At no point did our former city attorney mention that it was changed.” Councilman Travis Chance called it “Déjà vu all over again,” in a reference to how the previous version of the ordinance was adopted five years ago.
But Moore asserted that she and the council members bore responsibility for knowing what was in the 2016 ordinance.
“I’ll sit here and say in front of everybody that I accept blame for not reading every line of that ordinance, because that’s what I’m elected to do, and I’m telling you, I missed it,” Moore said. “I should have probably read every single line and gone back and compared it, and in retrospect, I think five years is too long.”
The most recent violations at all six businesses were from Dec. 8 Statesboro Police Department compliance checks. Bryan, presenting the cases with assistance from Alcoholic Beverage Control Officer Eric Short, said that two underage informants, using legitimate ID cards with their correct ages, entered each establishment together and ordered drinks.
This resulted in two counts of underage sale charged as misdemeanors against one or more employees of each business in Municipal Court. But for the administrative suspensions of the businesses’ alcohol licenses, Dec. 8 was counted as a single violation, Bryan explained.
· Gata’s Sports Bar & Grill, 67 Gata Drive, has its alcohol license suspended 21 days, from 8 a.m. Jan. 5 until 8 a.m. Jan. 26, for a fourth underage sale violations within five years, including violations Dec. 8, 2016, Sept. 20, 2015, Sept. 11, 2015 and Sept. 4, 2014. In the consent order, licensee Farid Gharachorloo also agreed to a two-year probation during which his business must “remain in full and strict compliance” with the ordinance and operate as a 21-and-over establishment beginning at 9 p.m. each day.
· Ruby Tuesday, 195 Northside Drive East, is suspended 17 days, from 8 a.m. Jan. 5 until 8 a.m. Jan. 22, for four underage sale violations, including Dec. 8 and prior violations Sept. 11, 2014, Aug. 22, 2013, and March 28, 2014. In the consent order, a Ruby Tuesday general manager agreed to a two-year “full and strict compliance” probation, with no further conditions.
· Main Street Bar & Grill, 230 S. Main St., is suspended seven days, from 8 a.m. Jan. 5 until 8 a.m. Jan. 12, for the Dec. 8 violation and one prior violation, on Feb. 15, 2015. The business also agreed to a six-month “full and strict compliance” probation.
· El Jalapeno Mexican Restaurant, 711 S. Main St., has its license suspended three days, from 8 a.m. Jan. 5 until 8 a.m. Jan. 8, for the Dec. 8 violation only, and has a six-month probation. The Police Department noted a prior ordinance violation Feb. 15, 2015, but this was for exceeding the building’s occupancy limit, and was not counted as a strike.
· Chili’s Bar & Grill, 435 Commerce Drive, is suspended three days, 8 a.m. Jan. 5 until 8 a.m. Jan. 8, and a six-month probation, for the Dec. 8 violation only. Chili’s had no prior violations in five years despite multiple checks, which Bryan said “speaks well for them.”
· Gnat’s Landing has its alcohol license suspended three days, 8 a.m. Jan. 5 until 8 a.m. Jan. 8, after the Dec. 8, 2016, violation and a violation Feb. 13, 2015. No probationary period was mentioned.
Gnat’s owner Al Chapman III did not sign a consent order. Instead, he spoke to council, describing steps he has taken to keep out underage drinkers and noting that these two violations were the only ones his restaurant has had in seven years.
Council members said they took this into account in suspending Chapman’s license three days, instead of seven days for a second violation.
With the long look-back, the new ordinance brought back violations that businesses, including Gnat’s Landing, had previously put behind them, Chapman said.
“Six months later, the ordinance gets changed and it’s hey, this was it, but no longer. So you don’t have a violation, but now you have a violation again…,” he said. “We’re just doing everything we can to make this thing work.”
Tell it to a judge?
Tuesday, when the first meeting of 2017 lasted three hours, more than half spent on alcohol enforcement and licensing, Moore also suggested that the city should look at referring license violations to an administrative judge. Boyum had suggested this before.
“The new ordinance has been in place for the last few months,” Moore said later. “We see things that are working within it, and we also see things that we need to work on, and one of them is a smoother way to review violations and determine what the appropriate penalty should be. One of those ways may possibly be having an administrative judge hear those.”
Moore instructed new City Attorney Cain Smith to research both possible changes for discussion with the Alcohol Advisory Board.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.