City to consider more changes to alcohol beverage license ordinance

Published 3:28 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2017

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — The Americus Mayor and City Council again tackled the city’s alcoholic beverage license ordinance during its agenda setting session of Sept. 14. The regular monthly meeting is at 5 p.m. Thursday when they will vote on another amendment to the ordinance.
At the agenda setting meeting, Mayor Barry Blount said that city manager, Steve Kennedy, had sent an email to him requesting that he have an attorney representing the city on other issues to talk about liability relative to the ordinance.
Brent Hyde of Tifton did just that. He told the council that he has more than 20 years of experience in handling liability for public entities. He stressed that city council has “broad discretion” with the ordinance. He said he considers the ordinance “a very good ordinance,” as it was approved in April. “As it stands, it adds a level of protection for the city and for the licensee,” he said. Hyde related a story about a lawsuit in Statesboro, which did not require finger printing or background checks in its ordinance, in which a club bouncer had an altercation with a college student which became physical and the student died. The student’s parents sued not only the club but the city clerk as well. “Did the city create a nuisance by amending an existing ordinance?” Hyde asked? In this case, he said, the student’s family sued for breach of ministerial duty and due diligence. “I would be very cautious in doing an amendment relating to the rules for licensing. Based on my knowledge of the law and the city’s rights, I wouldn’t change it.”
Blount asked Hyde to speak about personal liability in a case like this.
“It’s a very high bar for there to be personal liability. But once you’ve created an ordinance and try to relax the requirements, why?” the lawyer asked rhetorically.
Blount pointed out that Hyde also has law enforcement experience, having served as a sheriff’s deputy for a number of years.
Council member Nelson Brown said he had questions for Steve Kennedy. He said the memo Kennedy had sent to Council members was “pretty strong” and “I don’t think that’s how you communicate with us.” Brown said there is “confusion.” He said Kennedy’s memo focused on background checks and “I’m not against background checks.” Brown said that section 6.70 of the ordinance, which Brown voted to delete, “hasn’t been communicated properly or we wouldn’t be discussing this now. I want it brought back with proper communication.”
The mayor interjected, “I’m confused,” he said. “What do you mean by communication? The ordinance was sent out for all of us to read.”
Brown then started in again asking Kennedy how many meetings he held for licensees prior to the ordinance being adopted. This has been discussed at numerous council meetings since April. Kennedy said four. Brown said that “some” of the licensees came to the city council meetings and said they were not notified of the meetings. “My concern is can we do something else to make sure they’re notified. This is very serious.”
Blount addressed Brown: “We passed the ordinance in April and in July the licensees came to the meetings. Here we are in September and you’re saying you’re not opposed to background checks. We amended it to have the city pay for the background checks. I don’t know how much more communication you can have. … We need to see if we can protect ourselves and help the business owners.”
Council member Lou Chase also addressed Brown directly. “My question is, you’re not opposed to background checks yet the amendment eliminates background checks.”
“So, what is the question” Brown asked.
“Why did you vote for no background checks and you’re saying you are for background checks?” Chase asked.
Brown insisted that “Mr. Kennedy needs to bring this back to us again.”
“How?” Blount asked Brown.
Brown then rolled back to a former meeting when Council member Daryl Dowdell made the motion to deleted section 6-70. “The reason I voted yes was for all the massive confusion. We asked the chief (Americus Police Chief Mark Scott) if there was a problem with the ordinance as it was. So why implement a new ordinance? I never saw any paperwork indicating a problem.”
Kennedy responded to the “harshness” of his email. He said, “the importance of doing this for the entire city is critical … Everyone who works here or is elected here has a responsibility to do the right thing. You hired me to bring things to you to make the city better. It is not accepted practice to be reactive when there is an ordinance to deal with these problems. Look at Dillinger’s. The majority said close them down (due to infractions). Chief Scott didn’t recommend issuing a license but it was issued. Jimmy Skipper [city attorney] and I voiced our concerns. Four days later, the FBI and IRS were here closing down Dillinger’s.”
Kennedy went on to say that he had shared documents, etc. relative to city liability. “It’s valuable information,” he said. “I hope you read it. Is it not good for government to be reactive. We need to anticipate … After all this time of bringing all this back up over 18 months … on April 20 you voted for the new ordinance except for Mr. Dowdell … We communicated with the licensees with the same addresses they used requesting new licenses. …
“We had some feedback … The staff here is prepared to lead the city in the right direction to make us in a little better position. The staff’s recommendations aren’t as near important or valued as six or so complaints. The staff is providing ya’ll with facts and data and you’re getting comments and opinions that are self serving. The meeting with the licensees wasn’t required. It was my idea to get feedback and suggestions and we made some changes and the licensees were responsive.
“My frustration is for me to bring it back again.”
Council member Shirley Green Reese, who is seeking reelection, interjected, “We have to listen to our constituents because they put us here … I shouldn’t be penalized for how I vote. I have to represent my constituents. If they don’t like it, they will confront me or vote my butt out …”
Brown said he agreed with Kennedy about the need to be proactive, “but don’t forget trust, fairness, consistency and transparency.”
Lou Chase told Kennedy she appreciated the email. “It couldn’t be any more transparent when you lay it on the line … It’s so we can make an informed decision.”
“That’s just one opinion,” Green Reese interrupted. “Yes,” Chase agreed, “it’s mine. I’m not understanding why we aren’t listening to those far more experienced — the lawyer, the police chief and the city manager,” she said.
Green Reese said she disagreed. Brown suggested Kennedy talk with Wayne Bowers, a local licensee.