BY BRIAN JONES
At its Nov. 13 meeting, the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on a request from The Pony to be exempted from the county’s nightclub ordinance.
[I did not attend the supervisors meeting that day. Packet Reporter Hope Oakes recorded it and I am writing this account from that recording. – Ed.]
Jerry Westlund attended on behalf of The Pony. He was represented by attorney Jeff Hosford.
In 2014 the board passed an ordinance that required nightclubs to stop serving alcohol at 1 a.m. and be vacated by patrons by 1:30 a.m. The ordinance defines a nightclub as “lounges, taverns, bars, dance halls, pool halls, community centers, recreation centers, convention centers, multi-purpose centers” that serve alcohol and offer entertainment during any portion of its regular operation.
“This board at some time in the past passed an ordinance that changed the operating hours of several businesses in the county,” he said. “Those hours were changed to cut off alcohol sales at 1 a.m. and all patrons were to vacate the premises by 1:30 a.m. That has affected my client, and my client is here to request an exemption. We have done everything that the county has asked us to do, we’ve met all the requirements that the county had. It is my understanding that that went to a committee and that the committee turned that request down. We then contacted (Board Attorney Tim Hudson) and told him we wanted to appeal.
“The end result here is that my client operates a business here in the county,” Hosford said. “That business makes this county money through tax dollars, brings people to this county, employs citizens of this county, and wants to continue to do so. The county has the ability to give him the exception that he’s asked for. He has followed the rules. He has always followed the rules, he has never been a disturbance for as long as he’s been in business here. Basically he is asking you to follow the law that you’ve written and give him an exemption allowing him to operate a restaurant. What we’re proposing that Monday through Sunday we operate within the guidelines in the statute, where we operate between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 a.m. At 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. we ask that we be allowed to operate a restaurant in that facility. The restaurant would be open at all the hours, but from 1 to 3 a.m. there would be no alcohol allowed and no beer served. The law cuts off alcohol sales at 1 a.m. anyway. That’s not going to change.
“This allows you to protect your citizens,” Hosford said. “Your citizens don’t want people who are drunk on the road. The law forces them to put people on the road. The law says you have to have your premises clear by 1:30. There is no way to tell people to get out of that building and be gone and expect them to be sober if they’ve been drinking. He’s giving you the opportunity to do what you want to do, which is protect your citizens. That will allow him to ensure that these people have a chance to not leave and cause harm to the citizens. The law you have written forces him to put people on the street. There is a question of liability, and whether that shifts liability to the county, because he has no choice. He has to do it or he gets a ticket and possible jail time.
“He simply wants to be able to serve food until 3 a.m.,” he said. “He did it for years. This ordinance was passed originally because there were alleged issues at other places in Lowndes County. His establishment was never one of those places. He has security. He is willing to provide security. It is our belief that you can take this exception and you can add requirements to his business as part of that exception. We’re proposing that you add required security. He’s willing to provide one security officer for every 50 patrons during the 1 to 3 a.m. time of operation. That will ensure that the sheriff doesn’t have to come out there and break up fights and that kind of thing. The sheriff has never had a problem at his establishment. The only problems that occur there are theft and/or disturbances involving individuals who had nothing to do with his club. There has been nothing in the past years of operation – I believe he’s owned it for approximately 10 years – that has caused the sheriff a problem. He operates within the law and by the law, and he wants to continue to do so.
“Obviously if we can’t agree to something there are other means available to my client,” Hosford said. “We would prefer not to do that. We would prefer to go through the system. He has a business, and this business employs people. These people work here, they live here. It makes this county tax dollars. You took that business away from him when you changed the law. You cost 16 people their jobs with a one to two hour change. All that business goes to surrounding counties. He is asking you for an exception. We have passed every requirement this county has to get this exemption. We are more than willing to do whatever it takes to get your approval.”
“What food did you serve food prior to this ordinance?” asked District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks.
“We served a much more limited menu,” Westlund said. “When it came into effect, we went to the county and asked what we needed to do to have a restaurant. We were given a set of requirements, and we spent tens of thousands of dollars building a kitchen and passing inspections. We did everything we were supposed to do and then we went back for the permit and we were told we’re not going to be given the permit right now.
“What we’re asking for is something we had for 10 years,” he said. “This is not something that’s new for us. For 10 years we never had a problem, there was no alcohol after hours. We’ve been inspected dozens and dozens and dozens of times by law enforcement. We’ve never had a problem. The additional security requirement we’re offering of one trained security officer for every 50 patrons would eliminate some of the concerns and issues you had with some bad operators. I’m not here to defend any bad operators. I’m glad that bad operators don’t exist, because it creates problems for me and for law enforcement.”
“From what I understand this ordinance deals with nightclubs who have entertainment after 1 o’clock,” District 1 Supervisor and Board President Harry Sanders said. “It doesn’t pertain to nightclubs that don’t have entertainment. That’s probably the reason why the ordinance was done. We had bands and dancing and all sorts of entertainment going on in the middle of the night. I don’t think it has anything to do with anything other than entertainment. Are you planning on having entertainment with music and bands and dancers and these kind of things from 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock?”
“I think the terminology in the ordinance is ‘amplified music,’ which would include everything from Walmart to McDonald’s,” Westlund said. “Absolutely, to keep butts in seats we keep the show going. This isn’t something that we don’t do in other places. We pick up the alcohol, as we have for 10 years without a problem. We’ve never failed an inspection, we’ve never had alcohol found. We’re good at what we do and we haven’t had that problem. I had to lay off 16 employees because of what (this ordinance) did to my income. Quite frankly it was a combination of this and the bad economy. Things are turning around now, and I’ve got 16 employees I’d like to put back to work who have gone to part-time status from full-time status, and some of which don’t work for me anymore.”
“What is the capacity of your facility?” asked Brooks.
“I think it’s 275,” Westlund said.
“Your statute basically says any business with amplified music falls within this nightclub ordinance,” Hosford said. “That would include the Waffle House, which plays a jukebox. That would include a gas station that has a jukebox playing and serves food. That would include any business that plays music after 1 a.m. We understand what your intent was. You had problem with security, you had issues. My client is not that guy. What he’s offering is not any different from what he did for 10 years before this ordinance went into effect. There was no alcohol served after 1 a.m. because he couldn’t do it under state law. We’re not going to be a security problem.”
“What is magical about 3 o’clock?” Brooks asked.
“There has been a tendency across the country to keep people in their seats and to keep them from drinking and driving and flooding the highways,” Westlund said. “The problem right now is that if, at the stroke of 1:30, I have some college kids who have maybe been drinking somewhere else and they come into my bar, under a literal interpretation of the ordinance I have to push them out onto the highway whether they have a ride or not.”
“You made the statement that you’ve never had problems before,” Sanders said. “So why provide extra security? Why do you need all that?”
“The basis for the ordinance before was that you had some security concerns,” Hosford said. “We’re offering to alleviate those concerns with additional security to make sure that is not a problem at his establishment. We’re willing to take that extra step to make sure there’s not a problem.”
“At the last hearing we had, the county attorney expressed a concern that other people would take advantage of the exemption,” Westlund said. “We’re offering a framework that would allow that not to happen.”
“Once you make exceptions, you keep on making exceptions,” said District 2 Supervisor Bill Brigham.
“But you can also make requirements that include security, and if they can’t meet those requirements they’re not entitled to an exemption,” Hosford said.
“I’d like to table this for 30 days to give us an opportunity to review the ordinance and discuss it and then make a decision,” Brooks said. “We keep referring to the ordinance, and we just got this today. I want to be very objective about it. I was here when the business opened. It’s in my district, and I want to be objective.”
“He’s asking for two hours,” Hosford said. “That would allow the alcohol to be metabolized so his patrons are sober. The people leaving his establishment sober, which is everyone’s goal. You don’t want the laws that you write to force people onto the road and hurt someone’s child. The way it’s written now, he’s got to push them out the door.”
“Have you satisfied the part of the ordinance that says no loud music or no entertainment or whatever it is after 1 o’clock?” Sanders asked.
“I think the problem is that what you’re referring to is very vague,” Westlund said. “We are 100 percent in compliance with the law today. I think the sheriff will tell you that. I think there are probably some businesses that aren’t, but we aren’t one of them.”
Brooks asked that the matter be brought back up at the first meeting in December. His motion passed unanimously.0