Two Statesboro city councilmen who acknowledge being friends with a bar owner facing an upcoming licensing hearing say there is no reason for abstaining from voting on the issue.
A hearing has been set for 9 a.m. Wednesday before City Council to determine whether the alcohol license for Rude Rudy’s, owned by Jonathan Starkey, should be suspended or revoked, or no action taken.
Six other businesses face a similar hearing Oct. 7.
Recent alcohol ordinance compliance checks by Statesboro police resulted in people cited at several Statesboro bars, including Rude Rudy’s, and restaurants for underage possession of alcohol and furnishing alcohol to underage persons.
On Aug. 28, Georgia Southern University freshman Michael Gatto, 18, of Cumming, died after being beaten by a bouncer at the bar. James Grant Spencer, 20, of Olympic Boulevard, is charged with aggravated battery and felony murder. A statement on Rude Rudy’s Facebook page the night Gatto died stated the bar would close that night and that Spencer was off duty at the time. The post was apparently removed later and no longer appears on the page.
Rude Rudy’s has been the target of lawsuits by other patrons who claimed injury at the hands of bouncers there.
Starkey has not returned several phone calls over the past few weeks seeking comment on the lawsuits, Gatto’s death and the upcoming hearing.
Statesboro City Councilmen Phil Boyum and Gary Lewis each claim they know Starkey, but do not socialize with him or have a close relationship with him.
Councilmen Travis Chance and Will Britt both said Friday that they are friends with Starkey and have attended social gatherings, including Chance’s wedding, where Starkey was a guest.
Councilman John Riggs also said Friday he is friends with Starkey. Chance, Britt and Riggs all said their friendship with Starkey will not affect their vote regarding the hearing.
Chance, who said he has been close friends with Starkey for quite some time, said he is upset by the events at the bar and is concerned about underage drinking issues, but denied his relationship with Starkey will taint his vote.
“I am deeply disturbed by the tragedy that has occurred, and cannot express in words how saddened I am for (Gatto’s) parents,” he said. “I understand that there are those upset, and are claiming some pretty horrible things about me.”
Publicly, on social media and other websites, people have accused Britt and Chance of being financially involved in the operation of several local bars. Each has denied any business connection to Statesboro establishments serving alcohol.
Britt admitted having “helped out” with events and operations at some local venues when the owners needed advice or “were out of town.”
“I have always tried to do the right thing, and respond to any question I have been asked with a truthful and honest answer,” Chance said. “I have no financial interest or ownership in any business that serves food or alcohol of any kind. I have always been fair to everyone and every business that has come before this council. I have not shown any partiality to any one business, and to claim otherwise is irresponsible and untrue. Being friends with someone does not mean that you must sacrifice your morals, ethics, principles, or integrity.”
Britt also denied any business relationship between himself and Starkey. He said he has asked former city attorneys as well as current attorney Alvin Leaphardt about reasons for abstaining from voting, and said he was informed that a personal relationship with someone does not constitute a reason to abstain.
However, he said councilmen can abstain from voting anytime they wish if they feel they could not be impartial or that they should refrain from voting for any reason.
“Our community is very small,” Britt said, adding that in a small town, people “know everybody.” Councilmen can’t “recuse themselves from voting every time an issue with a friend or associate comes up.”
Riggs said he plans to vote his conscience regardless of his friendship with Starkey.
“I consider us friends, but that will have no bearing on what happens Wednesday,” he said. “As a city councilman, I have to put that aside. My duty is to be fair about this whole thing.”
Chance also said his responsibility as a councilman takes precedence over friendship.
“Personal relationships aside, I will not shirk my task simply because it would be easier to bow out. Principles only mean something when you stick by them when it's difficult. I will hear the arguments of both sides, and vote my conscience.
“I have no financial interest in any bar or alcohol-serving business,” he continued. “I understand and acknowledge that I have a personal relationship, and if I feel at anytime I can't be impartial, then I will recuse myself. However, I have always done what I thought was right, and this will be no different.”
Boyum said “I know (Starkey) but have never had a social relationship” with him.
Lewis said “I consider him a friend” but said he has no social interaction with Starkey. That won’t sway his vote, he said. “I will vote my conscience.”
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.