One more time

Published 9:51 am Thursday, August 11, 2016

WINDSOR – On Tuesday, November 21, 1978, a man stepped up to the bar at a Charlotte restaurant and ordered a Bloody Mary. It ended a seventy-year ban on mixed drink sales in North Carolina.

Now, nearly 40 years later, a similar ban could soon be lifted in Bertie County.

In a 4-1 vote at a special called meeting here Tuesday afternoon, the Bertie County Commissioners approved a resolution which would add a mixed beverage referendum to the Nov. 8 general election ballot. The referendum – approved in an earlier vote by the Commissioners, this one also split on a 3-2 vote – will give voters the power to decide whether the county should be allowed to issue permits to businesses wanting to serve mixed, alcoholic beverages, or liquor-by-the-drink.

North Carolina’s alcohol laws are complex and some feel, convoluted. They are different from county to county, municipality to municipality, and they have been debated for decades.

Bertie County last voted on a county-wide liquor-by-the-drink referendum in 2009 and it failed by less than 20 votes. In North Carolina, a county must first have an established state Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) store before it can permit businesses to sell mixed drinks.

Bertie County ABC Board Chairman Miles Davis, Jr. addresses the County Commissioners during a Tuesday meeting in Windsor.  In a split decision, the Commissioners voted to have a county-wide mixed-beverage referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. | Staff Photo by Gene Motley

Bertie County ABC Board Chairman Miles Davis, Jr. addresses the County Commissioners during a Tuesday meeting in Windsor. In a split decision, the Commissioners voted to have a county-wide mixed-beverage referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. | Staff Photo by Gene Motley

Ironically, that ’09 defeat benefitted the town of Windsor. That’s because state law says a town with a population of 200 or more residing within its corporate limits, and the vote in the last county election was against the sale of mixed drinks, then a municipal referendum is allowed. Windsor residents voted to approve mixed-beverage sales in 2010.

Of the counties that surround Bertie (Hertford, Chowan, Northampton, Washington, and Martin), only Gates does not have mixed-beverage sales.

County Manager Scott Sauer reminded the Commissioners that another no vote would produce a 36-month waiting period before the measure could be placed on the ballot again.

“If it were to fail there’s a three-year cooling off period, so to speak, before it could be taken back before the voters,” Sauer said.

Speaking neither for nor against the referendum, county ABC Board chairman Miles Davis cited some statistics. While he had none specifically for North Carolina, Davis read from a published article by Oklahoma State Highway Patrolmen from 2009. He later said he had talked with local NCSHP, and they cited similar drops in statistics in area counties.

“Before Oklahoma passed liquor-by-the-drink, in 1982 traffic fatalities, alcohol-related, were 1,070,” Davis recounted. “In 1986 it went down to 711; traffic fatalities have not been within the 200-plus range of the 1982 level since. DUI’s in 1982 were 7,858; in 1985 it went down to 5,632. The article said liquor-by-the-drink was not about encouraging the consumption of alcohol, it was about regulating and taxing it.”

Davis said less than 10 percent of registered Bertie voters cast ballots in the last referendum, but that during a presidential election year as many as 75-80 percent should come out to vote.

“That should settle the issue one way or the other,” he stated.

Davis said several factors influenced his stand on the issue including education: first of bartenders (done through Martin Community College and the local ABC); and of establishments on how to follow the laws.

“We’ll be able to work with ABC and law enforcement to try and shut down these ‘shot houses’ and illegal establishments that are in the county,” he continued. “As long as we are able to control it, I support it; and I’m speaking as a private citizen.”

Commissioner Ronald “Ron” Wesson mentioned that other counties specifically placed their referendums during smaller elections rather than the larger ones.

“They said they had to get the facts out to the public to say that it is not what you think it is,” Wesson noted. “That marketing approach is what changed a lot of minds. If we go with a larger election we take our chances, but we were told a smaller election was the best way.”

Commissioner Ernestine Byrd Bazemore said “let the masses decide”; expanding that she would like to make certain that the statutes are followed.

“Do we have that many restaurants in the county that would serve (alcohol),” she asked. “Is there really that demand there.”

Commissioner Tammy Lee wondered what had brought on the call for a referendum on mixed beverages.

“Who brought this up, and who would it benefit,” she wondered.

Commission chairman John Trent cited increased random checks in the county by law enforcement, including Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE).

“They have to cite probable cause to go into someone’s house,” he noted, “but not with a legal establishment; they can go in and do what they need to do and ask for a license.”

Wesson mentioned he had personal family experience with the restaurant business.

“Maybe we don’t have as many restaurants in the county because they don’t have that source (mixed beverages) of income,” Wesson said. “Without a liquor license it would be very difficult to make a profit because food is very tough if that’s all you sell, particularly in a small community. It does impact, in a positive way, economic development. For businesses that would try to come it would be very hard unless you were in the town of Windsor.”

ABC Board member Clint Freeman said the Board issues a number of limited occasion permits (receptions, parties).

“They’re not lawfully able to sell liquor, but people still drink at these functions,” Freeman said. “If we’re setting ourselves up for economic development and growth then this would be a great opportunity to get ahead of the curve and have the law in place so there’s no debate for anyone wanting to come into the county and start a business. And I would love to see more customers with mixed beverage permits because those parties and receptions don’t have a lot of security presence and things do get out of hand.”

Bazemore then made a motion to place the referendum on the November ballot, seconded by Wesson. The vote was then made: Wesson, Trent, and Bazemore in favor with Lee and Stewart White dissenting.

“I’m glad it’s going on the ballot,” Lee said, “because the masses will come out; but we are the Bible Belt, and I just couldn’t vote for it.”

Assistant County Attorney Cliff Smith then told the Board a resolution must be sent to Raleigh (to the state Board of Elections) explaining the specific language of the referendum with a ‘Yea” or “Nay” vote on the ballot. The attorney would also prepare all correspondence for the Elections Board.

A motion was then made, and seconded, to draw up the resolution, to be signed by chairman Trent, if it passed. That vote was 4-1 with Lee again dissenting.

“Let me go on the record to say I’ve had phone calls from citizens that were not in favor of this going on the ballot,” said White, in his first comments on the matter. “I think it was Craven County that had not supported it, but then turned around and supported it because of economic development: they were losing a lot of businesses that were going to their neighboring counties because they didn’t have mixed drinks. I like economic development too, but I’m going to take a stand on my being a devout Christian; it’s against my beliefs.”

“We all do have, and should have, our own personal opinions,” said Wesson. “But we’re a board of five in a county with 21,000. So let’s let the 21,000 decide, and accept whatever they say.”