Statesboro Council Punts on Placing Liquor Store Referendum on Ballot

The Statesboro City Council couldn’t come to a consensus Tuesday on whether or not to allow residents inside the city limits of Statesboro to vote on a referendum for liquor stores in November.

Members of council were divided on just about every component of the issue, ranging from when the matter should be on the ballot, when council should vote on it, and whether or not an ordinance should be drafted before voters go to the polls.

The Georgia legislature recently amended O.C.G.A. 3-4-41 to allow referendum to be initiated by passage by a local municipality or county. The amendments to how local governments can allow the sale of distilled spirits from liquor stores were approved by Governor Kemp on May 4 of this year.

  • The changes lowered the petition threshold to start the process from 35% of registered voters in the last election to 20%,
  • Maintained the two-year prohibition on ballot referendums so that there must be a period between placing a measure on the ballot after it fails on a ballot, and
  • The question on the ballot would read: “Shall the issuance of licenses for the package sale of distilled spirits be approved?” as required by state law.

Councilman John Riggs asked City Attorney Cain Smith if this protocol was similar to what Nathan Deal did when he became Governor and didn’t want to address Sunday Sales, so he put it off to the locals. Councilman Phil Boyum said it’s another step toward local control.

Riggs also asked if this the measure is approved by voters, when the council will vote to craft an ordinance about where the liquor stores can be placed, who can obtain a license, and other similar matters.

Smith said that had not been decided yet because the referendum, if approved, is what would allow the city council to have those discussions.

Councilwoman Sherri Barr said she had mixed feelings on it. “We’re behind the times and people are taking money elsewhere but what’s the rush? I just heard about this last Thursday. Are people ready for this to come to a vote?”

Councilman Boyum simply said, “It’s time. You talk about wanting people to have their say – this is how you do it.” He also said it was a good time to place it on the ballot because of the citywide election on the ballot in November that won’t be overshadowed by statewide races. “This is what hearing from the public is.”

Councilwoman Venus Mack said members of the public are currently taking their money elsewhere and the voters should instead decide. “If we vote on it today, we will have more time.”

City Attorney Cain Smith also, barring a special-called meeting, said the council has until the second council meeting in July to decide to place the matter on ballot this election cycle. The Board of Elections would need the referendum language by August 1, 2021.

Councilwoman Paulette Chavers asked if that was enough time to get it out to the public and for staff to draft possible ordinances. Smith said he could get ideas to council and Penny echoed that the city staff would work to do whatever council desired, but to remember the element of summer break.

Riggs said alcohol is ‘the most divisive issue that we have voted on. We all know that alcohol is a lightning rod. I think we would need at least of year of work session before we put it on the ballot for the public. Believe me, you’re going to hear it all and it all needs to be heard. I think this is rushing it.”

Mayor Jonathan McCollar said he worked with state senators and the Georgia Municipal Association to help get this measure approved through the legislature and he envisioned work sessions, time to look at what other cities are doing, and conversations from the public, town halls on the weekends and more, in deciding what was best for Statesboro.

“Our city has had a huge issue when it comes to alcohol. I want everyone’s opinions. Statesboro hasn’t had alcohol sales for 100 years. If we waited one hundred years, we can wait six months to do it the right way,” McCollar said.

He also stated the municipal election will have lower turnout and a better gauge of the public opinion would be to place it on the ballot in May 2022 during the primary elections.

Pam Hodges, who owns the County Line liquor store and spoke as a concerned citizen, said she felt the matter was being rushed. She told council she wanted to see more discussion before there was a decision.

Marcus Toole addressed council as a private citizen and said he did not care when it was placed on the ballot, but thought it should be in November 2021 or November 2022 – not May when the college students are absent. Joyce Stubbs from the Bulloch Alcohol & Drug Council said she was opposed to the measure because it was rushed and because the organization opposes increased access to alcohol for underage drinkers.

Boyum said the language up for a vote was only to place the language on the ballot. It would not take any other action to issue licenses, would not propose an ordinance without public hearings, and public education could happen at any speed after it appears on the ballot.

McCollar disagreed and said it should not be sent to the ballot for November if the process was going to be ‘abundantly transparent’ and if the people were going to know for what they are voting.

Boyum said placing the referendum on the May ballot would mean the city has to pay for a special election and city residents would have to vote twice at two different precincts because of the differing precincts as has been the case in year’s past. Boyum also said the students should be permitted to vote on the matter as members of the community and they’ll be gone in May.

McCollar told him that had no bearing on the issue. He said he wants the legislative pieces crafted when the voters go to the voting booth and that cannot happen before November. Chavers asked if that was required to place it on the ballot, to which Smith said no. “So we could take five years to draft the ordinance, take as long as we would like if it is passed by voters,” she said.

No one on council mentioned that legislation could be drafted, but could be amended at any time during the process in conflict with the desires of some members of the public.

Mack said she did not want to rush anything, but she believed there would be ample time to hear from the public. Boyum said the council should hold off on allocating resources going down the road if the citizens ultimately say ‘no.’

“It’s up to us to put it before them,” Boyum said.

Boyum made a motion to approve it, Mack seconded and when the vote took place, Riggs and Barr opposed. Chavers said she was undecided and tried to present a motion while another motion was pending, in conflict with Robert’s Rules of Order and meeting protocols. She said she needed more time and wanted to decide on the matter in July.

Boyum said he would withdraw his motion and he would make another if they vote on the matter at the second meeting in June. That was seconded by Councilwoman Mack.

The Council ultimately voted 3-0-1 to table the matter with Riggs abstaining for no particular reason. He then made a motion to have a work session on the matter.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and co-creator of of the Peabody Award-nominated podcast 'Prison Town.'

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