Our opinion: City Council puts taxpayer dollars at risk

Published 12:20 pm Saturday, September 23, 2017

In a 4-2 vote Thursday, the Americus City Council decided to remove another layer of protection offered to the city coffers and the alcohol beverage license holders of the city.

Council members Shirley Green Reese, Nelson Brown, Juanita Wilson and Daryl Dowdell voted to amend the city’s alcohol beverage license to delete a section requiring anyone who sells or serves alcohol to be fingerprinted and have a background check. Council members Lou Chase and Carla Cook voted against the amendment.

The Americus Mayor and City Council, after 18 months, adopted a new alcoholic beverage ordinance in April 2017, by a 5-1 vote. The newly minted ordinance was written at the request of Council members after several unsavory events occurred in bars in downtown Americus ranging from underage sales and consumption of alcohol and extreme intoxication, to fights in the bars and outside the bars, not to mention the noise that would sometimes continue into the wee hours of the following day.

The ordinance was sound, in our opinion, and had just enough teeth in it to protect business owners and the City of Americus against serious potential liability issues.

In June, Council voted to lower the fees for alcoholic beverage licenses by 10 percent, at the recommendation of city manager, Steve Kennedy, who had done an audit of similar-sized towns in Georgia.

At a called meeting in August, the council voted to shift the expense associated with fingerprinting and background checks to the city of Americus. Chase, Cook and Wilson voted yes, while Dowdell, Brown and Green Reese voted against. The mayor, Barry Blount, broke the tie, voting yes.

Also at that meeting, Dowdell made a motion to amend the alcohol beverage license ordinance by deleting sections 6-69 and 6-70. That motion was seconded by Brown. Voting yes were Dowdell, Brown and Green Reese and voting no were Chase, Cook and Wilson. The mayor broke the tie, voting no.

One of the sections Dowdell wanted deleted denies permitting for applicants who have been convicted of or pled guilty to a felony within five years of applying, have two or more convictions for any alcohol or drug related offenses, have any outstanding warrants for crimes described in this section, is on probation or parole for any alcohol or drug related offense. Applications may also be denied for applicants with certain citizenship restrictions.

At the August regular meeting, Council took up the matter of eliminating the requirement of fingerprinting for the employees of alcohol license holders. Chase made the motion to approve the amendment, seconded by Cook. The motion failed 4-2 with Chase and Cook voting for and Brown, Wilson, Dowdell and Green Reese voting against.

City attorney, Jimmy Skipper clarified, that if the amendment was approved, there were would be no fingerprinting or fees for permits and if it failed, there would be fingerprinting and fees. Brown stated that he is not for this (amendment). Wilson moved to eliminate the section of the ordinance (6-70) relating to fingerprinting and fees, seconded by Dowdell. Brown, Green Reese, Dowdell and Wilson voted yes while Cook and Chase voted no.  The vote directed Skipper to draft a new ordinance that would require first and second readings.

The city manager stressed that background checks are to benefit all the players and to provide protection for the licensees. He said his research of other cities in Georgia showed that many have a similar requirement for permitting. He researched cities in the state and found that most have the background check requirement. Those cities included Thomasville, Albany, Cartersville, Columbus, Eatonton, Hampton, Jackson, Cordele, Monroe, Warner Robins, Fitzgerald, among others

Then comes the September agenda setting meeting. Brown says he’s not against fingerprinting yet he voted to delete that requirement from the ordinance. He and Dowdell have voiced the opinion that convicted felons should be able to sell or serve alcohol because they need to have a “second chance.”

During its regular monthly meeting Thursday, four members of the Americus City Council decided what kind of community they want Americus to be with this crucial vote. Brown, Dowdell, Green Reese and Wilson voted to throw the baby out with the bath water by deleting the safeguards against lawsuits by future injured parties, as advised by one of the city’s attorneys.

Just last week, one of the city’s lawyers, Brent Hyde of Tifton, warned them of a lawsuit in Statesboro in which a bouncer at a club in a city that had no such restrictions in its ordinance roughed up a college student who died of his injuries. The student’s family not only came after the city of Statesboro for damages but the city clerk. That bouncer had a history of violence that would have come up in a background check. The student’s family is suing for $11 million.

The Americus city manager expressed Thursday, prior to the vote, that he was still not recommending the amendment removing the background checks.

Remember what happened early this year with a former downtown bar, Dillinger’s? Both the police chief and city manager recommended not renewing its alcohol beverage license because of numerous infractions, yet the majority of the council voted to grant the license. Just days later, the bar was raided by the FBI and the IRS.

This is a litigious society we live in. Why not take precautions to skirt the possibility of litigation in the future?

We say we want a city with a quality of life to attract more students, more working and taxpaying citizens and more business and industry. Allowing convicted felons to serve alcohol in the city is not a way to go about realizing this goal.

We are very disappointed in this action by the four named city council members who voted for the amendment.  We believe it shows poor judgment and lackluster leadership on their part. They should be ashamed.