Neither current Mayor Jonathan McCollar nor challenger Ernest Larry Lawton wants to tell Statesboro voters how to vote on the other citywide question on the Nov. 2 ballot, a referendum on allowing liquor stores in the city limits, they indicated in separate interviews.
But Lawton, who doesn’t drink and is a minister as well as a truck driver and trucking company owner, said he would have opposed putting the question on the ballot. McCollar, who also doesn’t drink and is a Georgia Southern University administrator, said it was time for Statesboro residents to decide the liquor store question for themselves. Early voting on that question, along with the mayoral race and, in District 4 only, a City Council race, has been underway for two weeks and will end at 5 p.m. Friday, before voting at traditional polling places opens 7 a.m.–7 p.m. next Tuesday.
“I have a very simple position on that,” McCollar said in an interview earlier this month. “I think it’s time for the people of the city to decide what direction they want to go, and whichever direction the people of this community choose that they want to go in, I’m going to support that 100 percent.”
Statesboro restaurants, pubs and bars with appropriate licenses already legally serve distilled liquor-based drinks, as well as wine and beer, for on-premises consumption, while supermarkets and convenience stores sell beer and wine for off-premises use.
But the one form of alcoholic beverage retailing Statesboro still does not allow that is permitted by many other Georgia cities is the sale of distilled liquor for off-premises consumption. Under Georgia law, this can only be done by specially licensed “package shops,” or in other words liquor stores.
A change in state law enacted earlier this year by the Georgia General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp made it easier to bring a liquor store referendum to city or county voters. Previously, a petition was required, but the question can now be put on the ballot by a majority vote of a local governing authority, and that is what Statesboro City Council did by a 3-2 vote in June.
“And I can tell you for me, alcohol is six of one, half a dozen of another because I don’t drink, and so having access to it is not one of the top priorities, but I know that that’s been an ongoing concern for decades in our community, and I felt that it was time for us to provide the opportunity for the people to be able to decide what direction they want to go,” McCollar said when interviewed two weeks ago.
During his current term as mayor, which began in January 2018 after he was first elected the previous November, City Council has updated the Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance more than once, relaxing certain restrictions and adding new definitions.
In an April 2020 work session where City Council considered an ordinance amendment, later enacted, that lets people take drinks outdoors in plastic cups of a certain size from restaurants and pubs in a defined area of downtown, McCollar spoke of that change as a step in creating a vibrant central business district.
“To be honest with you, the city of Statesboro’s alcohol ordinances are archaic and draconian, and it’s really holding us back in many aspects as far as us being able to have a lively downtown,” he said then.
Then in May, when council members proposed placing the liquor store referendum on the current city ballot, McCollar at first sought to delay it until next May’s state primary ballot, saying more time was needed to work out the particular regulations.
When council voted to move forward with the current referendum, he said he would have preferred to wait but promised to create a citizen committee — with law enforcement and social services organizations represented — to draw up the rules if voters legalize liquor stores.
“So we will definitely make sure that we do get that public input as far as the creation and crafting of the policy,” McCollar said in June. “But with that being said, everything will be decided on November the 2nd.”
Lawton’s position on the referendum sounds similar to McCollar’s in some ways, but Lawton says that, if he had been mayor at the time, he would have argued against putting the referendum on the ballot in the first place.
Statesboro’s mayor only has a tie-breaker vote and a limited veto of ordinances and spending proposals. Council’s bare majority vote in June was only a resolution to put the referendum on the ballot, not an ordinance.
“From what alcohol has done to me in my past, I don’t drink, you know, but because it’s on the referendum to be voted on, I don’t tell people what they should do because it’s already on the ballot,” Lawton said last week. “I don’t force my will on anyone else, but if it passes and I’m the mayor, then the council and I are going to come together and figure out guidelines, where a liquor store can be and how long a liquor store can be open and who a liquor store is not able to sell to.”
Lawton, 70, said he doesn’t agree with expanding alcoholic beverage sales because of problems drinking caused him earlier in his life that not everyone has experienced. When he was younger, he drank as a result of peer pressure, and drinking and partying caused him never to have any money or a home for about five years, he said.
He decided to give up drinking when he reached the point where his car broke down, none of his friends would come to see him, and he was broke and he realized he wanted a drink “absolutely bad.”
“And I just started thinking, but I’ve found out now it was the Lord talking to me, so I gave it up, because it kept me broke, and I believe it will still do the same thing for some people now,” Lawton said.
So if he had been mayor when the discussion started, he would have opposed bringing the referendum because people who have never had drinking problems “don’t understand,” and those who do have drinking problems “don’t want it but they’re still kind of hooked to it,” needing help from organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Lawton said.
“If I’d have been there, no, I’d have done all I could to persuade the councilmen, whoever voted on it, that this does not need to be on the ballot, just for that reason, for all the potential it could have to damage people,” he said.
McCollar, 47, is assistant campus director for Georgia Southern's Liberty Campus in Hinesville. His wife, Adrianne McCollar, is also a GS staff member, working at the Statesboro campus.
Lawton and his wife, Deborah Lawton, are the founders of the nonprofit Tri-County Ministries of Jesus Christ, of the Spirit Filled Baptist Church on Packinghouse Road and of Hallelujah Transportation LLC.