City Council did not vote Tuesday to put a referendum on allowing liquor stores on Statesboro’s Nov. 2 city election ballot, instead splitting 2-2 on an abortive motion before the fifth council member, Paulette Chavers of District 2, requested more time to decide.
Mayor Jonathan McCollar, who is up for election Nov. 2, urged that the referendum be delayed until the May 24, 2022, state and county primary. District 1 council member Phil Boyum and District 3 member Venus Mack had asked that the resolution to initiate a Nov. 2, 2021 referendum be placed on Tuesday’s agenda, and they made the motion and second. But with Chavers not ready to vote, Boyum withdrew his motion rather than force McCollar to break a tie.
District 4’s member, John Riggs, who in his 12th year on the council recently announced he is not seeking re-election, was first to say that more time was needed. He said the council should hear from all sides and to vote soon would be “rushing it.”
“Alcohol is the most divisive issue that we’ll ever come across. …,” Riggs said. “We all know that alcohol is a lightning rod. I believe that we would need at least a year of work sessions, inviting the public, before we call a referendum.”
What the mayor and council arrived at Tuesday was not that lengthy a delay – not yet, anyway – but a two-week postponement. They are slated to receive more information and discuss the issue further during a 3 p.m. June 15 work session and could vote during the 5:30 p.m. meeting that follows.
The latest regular meeting when City Council could vote to put a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot would be July 20, since the city would need to make a formal request to the county Board of Elections and Registration by Aug. 1, said City Attorney Cain Smith.
For a Georgia city council or county commission to bring a referendum for legalizing liquor stores by simply passing a resolution was impossible before May 4, when Gov. Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 145 into law. Previously, a referendum for this purpose could only be initiated through a petition signed by at least 35% of the registered and qualified voters in a city or county.
Senate Bill 145 lowered the petition threshold to 20%, if citizens bring a petition. But also under the new law, no petition at all is required if a city or county governing board initiates the referendum by passing a resolution or ordinance.
‘What’s the rush?’
District 5’s council member, Shari Barr, said she had heard arguments in favor of allowing liquor stores, but also thought that a council vote Tuesday for a November referendum would have been rushing things.
“I hear and understand, like, ‘We’re behind the times for a city our size, there are so few of us left in Georgia who don’t allow it, and why are we letting counties around us have the money?’ So I’m open and sympathetic to that argument,” Barr said. “And I don’t like doing things fast. What’s the rush?”
But Mack said that allowing “alcohol stores” in Statesboro had been one of the top requests she heard from residents of her district when she won her council seat two years ago. Mack told those constituents she would try to do something about it, and she said now is the time.
“If we vote on this today, we would have a couple of months to hear what people have to say, and then we’ll see what they have to say when they go to the ballots and vote,” Mack said.
“That’s what this is,” Boyum agreed. “The referendum is a way for every single person in the city to have their voice heard.”
Speaking to Riggs at first, he noted that this November’s ballot is already a citywide election ballot, while all 2022 regular elections will be for state and county offices. So a city referendum next year would require a special election, probably held at the same time as a county or state election.
“Clearly we need to move forward,” Boyum said. “As for time, John, I mean, we’ve already got a regularly scheduled City Council election. We wait till next year, now our city (referendum) is mulled up with the governor’s race and the House races and so forth.”
At one point during the discussion Boyum credited city officials in Cobb County near Atlanta with successfully advocating for Senate Bill 145. A few minutes later, McCollar spoke up to say that he also played a role in the state legislation’s passage.
“There was another mayor outside of the Cobb County area that was working on getting the municipalities an option to be able to vote on this by a simple council up-or-down vote, and that was me,” McCollar said. “So I understand this inside and out.”
The mayors worked with the Georgia Municipal Association and state senators and representatives “to get more local control on this particular topic,” McCollar said.
But the whole idea, he added, was to get public input, and he had envisioned a work session for information and two public readings. The city by its own rules will have to hold two readings and at least one public hearing on city ordinance changes that would be needed if voters approve the referendum, but not necessarily before the election.
Questions the mayor said have already arisen include, “Is there going to be a liquor store on every corner?” or “Will there be a certain number?” and “Where incomes have been historically disadvantaged by package stores being in their communities, are we going to bring any precautions in regard to that?”
“The next time we can put this on the ballot is May 24,” McCollar said, meaning the next time after Nov. 2, which he said was too soon. He said he would like to see not just a council work session, but three town-hall meetings, including two on weekdays and one on a weekend, for this topic.
“We can take our time, the staff does not have to be rushed, the people of the city, who are reaching out to me and saying they feel that this is being rushed, they feel that there’s been a lack of transparency in this conversation, and so there’s no need to be rushed,” McCollar said.
With students away?
However, Boyum and Mack noted that the May 24 election will occur after Georgia Southern University’s spring semester has ended, while many students are away. Mack said that “half” of her district’s residents would be out of town.
Eventually, Boyum made the motion to initiate the Nov. 2 referendum, Mack seconded, and they voted for the resolution. But Barr and Riggs voted “no.”
That left Chavers with the apparently decisive fifth vote, but she did not immediately cast it.
“This is very important to me, and before I decide on something, I need time to think about it, and I think July is enough time for me to think about it,” she said at first.
If the motion stood and Chavers did not vote, the mayor would be required to cast a tiebreaker vote, Smith advised the elected officials. Boyum said he didn’t want to wait until July but was willing to withdraw his motion and accept a delay until the next meeting.
Chavers said that would be sufficient. Boyum withdrew his motion and made a new motion to table the resolution until June 15. Mack seconded, and Chavers joined in voting “yes.” But Barr and Riggs did not vote, so the only official council action on the liquor store question Tuesday was a 3-0 vote to table.