TWO WEEKS AGO I wrote at length about the controversy over an alcoholic beverage license for the new performance venue The Stage On Bay.
No need to rehash the debate in too much detail. But to catch everybody up:
The owners put thousands of dollars into a remodel of a light industrial site near the West Savannah neighborhood of Hudson Hill for the purpose of a 1000-seat all-ages music venue, which would have met a specific and currently unmet market demand.
Many in the neighborhood itself, citing other liquor licenses in the area, simply do not want this venue to open in the area. Saying they weren’t consulted, they urged City Council to deny the liquor license.
They succeeded and the future of the venue is in serious question. The issue is now almost certainly headed to court.
That’s the long and short of it, and it is what it is. But this week I want to focus on the odd spectacle we saw last week at the actual City Council meeting in which the license was denied.
The issue isn’t the Hudson Hill neighborhood’s opposition, which they are surely entitled to express.
The issue isn’t Alderman Van Johnson spearheading that opposition. He is just doing his duty in representing his constituents. I would have done the same.
The issue is that we saw a City Council virtually unanimous that they were legally in the wrong, but who almost unanimously also opted to burden taxpayers with defending a lawsuit they essentially admit the City will lose.
After rightly pointing out that the City will “be going to court against our own laws,” Alderman Tony Thomas then did an about-face and said he would vote against the liquor license anyway.
Alderman Brian Foster, who ran as an expert on fiduciary responsiblity, also opted to vote against the license and help assure the matter went to litigation.
Alderman Johnson repeatedly taunted about his eagerness to go to court over the issue, though at one point also said the issue isn’t a matter of law, but of “courage.”
None of this is rocket science, of course. By kicking the issue into a courtroom, City Council can have its cake and eat it too.
They can say they “listened to the people,” and in so doing shift blame from themselves to the court system for whatever happens next.
Alderman Julian Miller was the only vote in favor of granting The Stage On Bay an alcohol license, and offered the only logical point of view:
“This Council has no legal standing to deny this,” he said, going on to muse, “Alcohol matters really shouldn’t come before this body at all.”
Miller suggested that an administrative officer could address these issues, inferring there’s no real reason that requires City Council to deliberate on each and every liquor license.
Some other cities have separate boards of review whose only job is to deal with alcohol licenses. Elected representatives are of course made aware of pending applications in their districts.
This frees up elected officials to focus their time and energy elsewhere — instead of on hour-plus deliberations across multiple meetings, as we saw with the excruciatingly drawn-out case of The Stage On Bay.
This would also help keep raw politics out of the picture.
City Council is fond of pointing out to businesspeople that a liquor license in Savannah “is a privilege, not a right.”
But really this is arguable — as we will likely find out in the ensuing Stage On Bay court case.
It’s important to stay focused on the real issue at hand here.
Hudson Hill opposing the venue is just democracy in action. The neighborhood wanted a desired result, mobilized for that result, and petitioned their government for redress.
That’s how you do it. More power to ‘em.
The problem is that City government still prefers the “easy” way out, i.e. futile litigation, rather than the hard work of adopting a protocol that would help us avoid such rancorous community discord and costly litigation in the future.
At the end of the meeting, City Manager Rob Hernandez was asked if this issue could be studied with an eye toward resolving the conundrum.
Hernandez indicated his office would be able to take it up at some point in the next 90 days.
(To give credit where it’s due, Alderman Thomas has been pushing for this.)
I would urge that the City consider taking this to the next level, and delegating alcohol license review authority to a separate body, as is done in some other locales.
City Council could and should of course reserve the right to revoke licenses in the case of some clear violation or series of violations.
This would free up valuable time for them to address other, more pressing local issues. I’m sure each of us could come up with our own list of them.