The city’s recourse to the Superior Court last fall for an order to close down two nightclubs after repeated gun violence, and a review of Statesboro’s Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance by the city attorney, revealed fundamental flaws in the existing city law.
Officials said as much during City Council’s work session Tuesday on a proposed replacement for the ordinance. City Attorney Alvin Leaphart repeated his assertion that the update is intended “to provide the mayor and City Council as much flexibility as possible in the regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages.”
But in other comments, Leaphart and the city’s public safety director acknowledged that the action taken last year through the Bulloch County Superior Court was necessary because the city could not act under its own authority.
Johnnie L. Benton, 25, was killed, and Jamal Heard, 21, seriously injured when shots were fired around 2:30 a.m. Nov. 10 at the Primetime Lounge on Northside Drive West. Shots had been fired, without reported injuries, about 90 minutes earlier at the Platinum Lounge on Proctor Street, the same club where Akeila Roschell Martin, 32, was killed and another woman wounded in an Aug. 19, 2012, shooting. Police continue to investigate both homicides.
“The city is really currently powerless to take any sort of action against those sorts of incidents under our alcohol ordinance,” Leaphart said. “We had to actually show that to the court in order for the court to exercise its jurisdiction.”
In other words, in seeking the orders that shuttered Primetime and Platinum, the city had to point out that it had no authority to pull their licenses. Superior Court Judge John R. Turner then issued temporary injunctions closing both establishments in November.
This was followed by hearings, and then a permanent order in March that put the Platinum Lounge out of business.
Meanwhile, City Council did revoke the Primetime Lounge's license in January. But a falsehood in the license application, revealed by Superior Court testimony, provided the reason – not the violence itself.
The current Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance does not place a responsibility on a club owner or other licensee to keep an orderly establishment, Leaphart noted.
“People getting shot in the parking lot, people fighting in the parking lot, in and around the club, just general disorder around the establishment was not an alcohol violation,” he told the council.
Public Safety Director Wendell Turner, who oversees the Statesboro Police Department, said he appreciated the work done by Leaphart and the district attorney’s office to find a remedy, but that the amount of violence that occurred and the time that passed hurt the city and pointed to a need to change the ordinance.
“It hurt this city and it hurt our reputation as a police department as to what it took to get that kind of a case before the judge, whereas if we had a mechanism in place, it could be handled in-house, and we have been clearly put on notice that it is something that has to be addressed,” Turner told the mayor and council.
He called the ordinance replacement “absolutely past due” and said it will give officials, from officers on the street to mayor and council, “bright line rules” to follow.
By “put on notice” he meant by events, not by the court. But seeking an order from the court was an “extraordinary remedy,” Leaphart noted, advising council members that the city should try to avoid asking for another.
The proposed new ordinance includes subsections titled “Order required within establishment” and “Order required outside establishment.” Failure of owners and their employees to keep order, such as by allowing illegal activity inside a restaurant or unruly gatherings in its parking lot, could lead to the suspension or loss of a license, or probationary steps under other proposed new provisions.
Another weakness of the existing city law, according to Leaphart, is that it empowers the city clerk, not City Council, to grant licenses. Although alcohol license applications frequently appear on the council’s agenda and votes are held, nothing in the existing ordinance says that the council must approve a license, or even that it can.
Leaphart referred council members to the specific Georgia law that empowers cities to grant alcoholic beverage licenses. It requires that an applicant denied a license gets a hearing before “the governing authority,” in this case City Council. But Statesboro’s ordinance does not provide that hearing.
“If a license somehow needed to be rejected by the clerk, the aggrieved party would most likely be able to file suit and have our whole alcohol ordinance declared unlawful,” he said.
The suggested new ordinance would create a two-stage process. The clerk would review the basic qualifications, such as whether the applicant is at least 21 and not a felon. But the mayor and council would approve or reject the application after a hearing where they could consider other factors – all spelled out in the ordinance – such the applicant’s reputation, past violations, and even traffic congestion and the number of places that already sell alcohol in an area.
A key provision is a power for city staff members to suspend a license immediately “in the interest of public safety,” pending a hearing before City Council. In Savannah, the city manager has this authority, and suspended the license of a bar where shots were fired earlier this year.
Tuesday’s draft would have given Statesboro’s city manager this power, but council members objected to entrusting it to one person.
“If you give it to one person, that one person has the ability to say, ‘Guilty, now prove you’re innocent,’” Councilman Phil Boyum said.
The draft version also called for the hearing “as soon as practically possible, but no later than 30 days” into the temporary suspension.
Councilman Will Britt said he understood the need for a cooling-off period, but he thought the time before a hearing should be shorter.
“If you’ve not stood in front of that podium and looked at a group of people that are about to take your livelihood away, you don’t understand this,” Britt said.
What emerged from the discussion was the idea that two officials – the mayor and the city manager – should be able to suspend a license, and then only on a recommendation from the public safety director.
City Council would then be called to an emergency hearing within three business days. At that time, the council could remove the suspension, allow it to continue, or place probationary conditions on the business, such as an early closing time, Leaphart said. A final hearing would follow within 30 days.
Other suggested provisions discussed at Tuesday’s session included a change in the “50 percent rule” for restaurants that serve alcohol; the elimination, following a recent change in state law, of a distance requirement between the university and grocery stores that sell beer and wine; and inclusion of a city “drunk and disorderly” law for all public places.
The council will probably hold two more work sessions, with license holders specifically invited to the next one, before voting on the ordinance, Mayor Jan Moore said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.