As Statesboro City Council issued warnings Tuesday to six restaurants for one instance each of an employee serving alcohol to someone under age 21, the question kept coming up why the council did not holding any similar hearings during several previous years.
City Council held an abortive hearing Sept. 24 in which Rude Rudy's was shut down under an agreement with its owner. That followed the death of Georgia Southern University freshman Michael Gatto, 18, on Aug. 28 after a violent encounter there. The city had taken action last year to close the Platinum Lounge and the Primetime Lounge through Superior Court orders, also after a death and other violence at each.
But short of a deadly crisis, council members by their own reckoning had not held an alcohol compliance hearing since February 2011, despite cases made by police against individuals in court.
"We haven't had an establishment come before us in three years at least," Councilman John Riggs said, explaining why he didn't immediately know the potential penalties faced by one-time violators.
Councilman Will Britt noted that in February 2011, the council issued several warnings and suspended one establishment's license for 10 days for a second violation.
"Why is that that we haven't had any of those violations since 2011?" Britt asked. "There have been violations of the alcohol license since February 2011, but this body has not heard an alcohol violation since February 2011."
Mayor Jan Moore promised to discuss that question after dealing with the six cases at hand:
Those six resulted from compliance checks by police on Sept. 4 and Sept. 11. Under the city's Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance, license holders were subject to either a warning or a one-day suspension for a single violation. While unrelated portions of the council meeting went forward, the licensees met with police officials in the hallway, and when the hearings began, Public Safety Director Wendell Turner announced that all were willing to agree to the facts.
"They were willing to waive their hearing and have a ruling from mayor and council as to what the violations merit as far as punishment goes," Turner said.
Ruby Tuesday was first up.
"We do have a zero tolerance for that. The employee was immediately fired that night," Jody McSwain, Ruby Tuesday's South Georgia operations director, told the council.
"It's not something that we're proud of," he continued, "but we do understand that we did it and we will hopefully be able to receive a warning with preventive measures."
McSwain provided council copies of his company's five-day employee training process, and noted that it includes alcohol awareness and information on consequences.
In response to the violation, Ruby Tuesday provided two opportunities outside the company for additional training, McSwain said. Ruby Tuesday set up a TIPS, or Training for Intervention Procedures, course for its Statesboro employees last Sunday, and McSwain noted he is slated to take instructor training to be able to administer the course as new employees arrive.
Other licensees also mentioned TIPS training as part of an improved regimen for awareness of drinking age compliance.
Christopher Scott Springfield of South City Tavern said the tavern's employee who served to an underage person was immediately suspended until she received TIPS training.
"I've since made it a policy for all of the staff down here to have TIPS certification," Springfield said. "We have multiple systems in place to prevent underage drinking from occurring."
Locally, the Bulloch Alcohol & Drug Council provides TIPS training free for employees of businesses that serve alcohol.
"All they have to do is call us and we work out a time when it is convenient for them, on- or off-premises," Bulloch Alcohol & Drug Council Executive Director Joyce Stubbs said in an interview.
Lasting about three hours, the course includes instruction on the law, and tips for recognizing intoxicated persons and fake IDs. Individuals take a test graded by the course publisher and after passing it receive a certification card valid for two years.
After voting separately to issue warnings to Ruby Tuesday and South City Tavern and confirming that the other restaurants' cases also involved single violations, council sped up the process.
By a single, unanimous motion, El Sombrero on Buckhead Drive, GATA's, Bigshow's Burgers & Bar on Lanier Drive and the Millhouse Steak House also had their warning.
Public Safety report
Turner and Statesboro Police Detective Lt. Robert Bryan also brought their promised report on the incidence of underage drinking. Besides enforcement, gauging the extent of the problem was a purpose of a recent surge in compliance checks, they had said in a previous interview.
"The results of the operation demonstrated there is an underage drinking problem, focused in and around the GSU campus and primarily from on-premises consumption licensees," Turner told the council.
His proposed remedy centers on hiring an alcoholic beverage control officer to coordinate enforcement and creating a Hospitality Review Board to advise the city on compliance issues. This approach is based closely on the program in Athens-Clarke County.
In Statesboro, the total number of police compliance checks for sale of alcohol to underage persons — as contrasted with citations for underage possession — was much higher in 2013 than so far this year. The report showed 35 citations for underage sale resulting from 140 checks in 2013, but only eight citations on 26 checks so far in 2014.
At the "other business" point in the agenda, Moore addressed the lack of hearings. She noted the difference between underage drinking violations by individuals, which are prosecuted in Municipal Court, and summoning license holders and presenting evidence to the council for license hearings. That is the step that didn't happen, and Moore said she wants to know why.
"We don't have that answer, but I have asked our city attorney and our city manager to compile that information," she said. "I want details. I want to know who should have been doing it, where we failed in the process, why that wasn't happening and what fell through the cracks."
Two citizens also addressed city inaction during the "public comments" time.
Nathan Queen, general manager of Retrievers and part owner of Dingus Magee's, gave the council documents citing occurrences he said had given the city grounds to revoke the Rude Rudy's license prior to Gatto's death. In a written statement, Queen counted 10 violations from Feb. 9 through July 14. At least half were reflected in police citations, but others, such as a claim that some customers were nude there on Feb. 9, were based on reports of other incidents and did not result in criminal charges.
"I think we as a community deserve some answers," Queen said. "Why did it take so long? That is my question here today. Why did it take the death of a young man before you took action?"
He said he wanted to know who told city employees not to bring the case before the council.
Former mayoral candidate Bill Thomas also spoke, saying, "Our police department needs to enforce the laws, first, that are on the books, and our police department needs to know that they're not going to have any intimidation by council, that they're not going to be fired for doing their jobs."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.