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Our View: Finding a solution to underage drinking

        It’s been more than a week since the Statesboro City Council voted unanimously to accept a settlement agreement that closed Rudy Rudy’s for good and required owner Johnathan Starkey to never again apply for a liquor license in the city.
In the wake of the tragic circumstances that cost Georgia Southern student Michael Gatto his life and put Rude Rudy’s employee James Spencer behind bars facing a murder charge, there’s little argument that council members did the right thing. Indeed, the only thing.
        The agreement, hammered out by City Attorney Alvin Leaphart, Mayor Jan Moore and Public Safety Director Wendell Turner, however, doesn’t resolve the very difficult issue of underage drinking in Statesboro.
        It is certainly no bulletin that alcohol consumption by people under 21 in cities like Statesboro, Clemson, Athens or dozens of college towns across the country is higher per capita than larger cities. Many people argue the legal drinking age should be 18, like it was in most states prior to President Ronald Reagan signing the National Minimum Age Drinking Act in 1984. The law stipulated any state that did not set their minimum age to 21 for people to purchase or publicly possess alcohol would lose 10 percent of their federal highway funds. Every state did just that and none have lowered the age in the past 30 years.
        So, for the purpose of how the city of Statesboro should proceed, the legal drinking age has been decided. The law is you must be at least 21 to purchase and be served alcohol or to have alcohol in your possession in public. That’s the law police are charged with enforcing and that’s the law every business in Statesboro that holds a license to sell or pour alcohol must abide.

Compliance hearings
        However, what is the practical enforcement of underage drinking laws for both businesses and individuals?
Herald reporter Al Hackle’s story earlier this week detailing all the fights, complaints and compliance issues involving Rudy Rudy’s, along with a rape allegation, clearly demonstrates it was a business that should have been ordered to a liquor license compliance hearing in front of City Council long before the 18-year-old Gatto was killed on Aug. 28.
        In fact, Mayor Moore and Public Safety Director Turner said city council members should have held a lot more compliance hearings in the past three years and are investigating why more hearings were not called.  To that end, six restaurants will appear Tuesday morning before the council for administrative compliance hearings regarding their alcohol licenses.
        But there is no comparison between these six businesses — South City Tavern, GATA’s, Big Show’s Burgers and Bar, Millhouse Steak House, Ruby Tuesday or the El Sombrero on Buckhead Drive — and Rudy Rudy’s.
Turner said compliance checks at all restaurants have increased since Gatto’s death. And none of the restaurants summoned Tuesday are accused of anything close to the seriousness of the allegations Rudy Rudy’s faced. They simply are accused of serving alcohol to persons under 21 or other violations of the alcohol ordinance.
        We don’t believe it is the intention of the police, the mayor or the council to “harass” businesses that serve alcohol. But after such a horrific event, it is natural to look at what should have been done to prevent the incident and what should be done in the future to ensure as safe an environment as possible not only for 18 to 20 year olds, but for all of us.

Change 50-50
        We believe one of the first aspects of the alcohol ordinance council should change is the 50-50 requirement for every restaurant in Statesboro. We believe Council should create separate categories for bars and restaurants that require a much higher percentage of food be served in comparison to alcohol. That number may be 75 percent or a study of alcohol licenses in other cities my result in a higher number.
        But every business that can’t legitimately meet that much higher percentage must be classified as a bar and no one — no one — under 21 could be admitted. That would eliminate the need for wrist bands or hand stamps or other methods of identification. Everyone would be 21. Certainly, some people will use fake ids and some employees will look the other way and serve people under 21. There is no 100 percent foolproof system. Eliminating the 50-50 requirement, however, would make underage compliance checks by law enforcement officers a much more straightforward proposition.
        Another idea that will be studied by police and council is creating an officer position dedicated to enforcing the requirements of the alcohol ordinance. It certainly is a suggestion worth strong consideration and study.

Harsh words
        Michael Gatto’s mother Katherine had some understandably harsh words for the city at the Sept. 24 hearing:
        "Despite numerous incidents, (Rude Rudy’s) and many like it have inexplicably escaped scrutiny over the years. ... Underage drinking is profitable here in Statesboro, and there's lots of fingers in the pie. ... The city of Statesboro has largely looked the other way, and my son's dead."
        She’s right. But how do police, city council and we as a community deal with the indisputable fact that underage drinking in Statesboro went on yesterday, will happen tonight, occur tomorrow and every day in the future?
        The line of enforcement that will prevent the lowlife bars like Rude Rudy’s from existing and allow restaurants like Ruby Tuesday’s not to operate in constant fear of losing their alcohol license is probably easy to set. But where is the line between strongly enforcing underage drinking laws and harassment of businesses?
        While that line remains a moving target, what has to happen now is the city’s alcohol ordinance must be amended to allow the City Council to step in so bars like Rude Rudy’s and Platinum Lounge can be shuttered without having to wait until someone is killed.
        Perhaps there is no reasonable way to really stop underage drinking in Statesboro — or any town in America, for that matter. But what we undoubtedly can do is ensure the problems that were allowed to fester at Rude Rudy’s never happen again. We owe that to Michael Gatto and his family. We owe it to our community.

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