As there are no shortage of rumors and gossip surrounding this ongoing brouaha, we thought it would be illuminating to release the transcript of our recent telephone interview with Alderman Van Johnson, along with the exact wording of the City Ordinance in question (so that everyone may see for themselves the law that is causing such confusion and upset).
Music Editor Jim Reed: Alderman Johnson, I appreciate you calling me back. Do you have a few minutes that we could talk?
Van Johnson: Sure. Sure.
Fantastic. I’m on a short deadline due to the holidays, and I’m in the process of trying to put this piece together. I have a bunch of questions and I figured you were about the only guy to ask, because it’s always best to go straight to the source.
Van Johnson: Right.
Right off the bat, let me ask you this: There’s been an article or two on the Savannah Morning News’ website that I’ve seen, and there are a lot of comments flying back and forth on that site pertaining to this issue. It’s pretty hard to follow the order of those comments because of the way their website displays them...
Van Johnson: You’re talking about the blog?
Yes. The Morning News’ blog.
Van Johnson: Where your people are attacking me.
Van Johnson: They mentioned Connect Savannah, actually.
What exactly do you mean by “my people”?
Van Johnson: Well, somebody mentioned you, and said that’s where you find out where all the entertainment is.
Well, I believe someone made the point that we at Connect work hard to publicize all sorts of live entertainment.
Van Johnson: They said there were hundreds of clubs or something like that in your paper. That’s what I meant.
Well, I assure you whomever posted that comment was not affiliated with Connect Savannah. Now, do you feel that your role in this situation has been portrayed incorrectly or that you have in some way been misunderstood?
Van Johnson: Absolutely. I am an elected official, charged with making policy. We hire staff to ensure that the policies are implemented and enforced. In this particular case, I personally witnessed some actions that I believed were outside of the spirit and the definition of our ordinance. I asked some questions of the business personnel for clarification, and then I forwarded my concerns to the City Manager and my colleagues on Council. They concurred with my interpretation.
In other words, based on your description of the events, they agreed with you?
Van Johnson: Based on my description, in terms of what the spirit of this ordinance was meant to establish. That is simply that we have restaurants and we have clubs. When we were looking at this “under 21” ordinance, we opened it up for the public’s input. None of these particular establishments showed up to give any comment one way or another about the issues. We went through great lengths to make sure that restaurants were not adversely affected by prohibiting patrons under 21 into establishments that served alcohol. We established clear definitions of what restaurants were and what bars are and what clubs are. In this case, we had a business that’s classified as a restaurant that was acting as a club.
Now, I was privy to, attended and took part in some of those meetings you’re speaking of, and I was a very vocal opponent of the ordinance as it is written. Speaking as a local professional musician and as someone who was actually one of the people who had argued publicly for the original ordinance that was being rescinded and replaced — the one that allowed restaurants and bars the option of choosing to allow people under the age of 21 entry to their place of business, providing that there was bona fide live entertainment being presented, and that any minors were clearly marked and monitored so they could not obtain alcohol on the premises.
Van Johnson: Right.
What was ironic when this new ordinance was being pushed through —and I even stood up and spoke about this at one of the council meetings, which unfortunately seemed to fall on deaf ears— was that there was very little, if any, demonstrable evidence at that time to suggest there was a big problem with underage drinking in establishments with live entertainment. Where that problem actually arose was in —for lack of a better term— the “booty bars”.
Van Johnson: Okay.
Basically, dance clubs, in which there’s not really what most folks think of as “live entertainment.” There’s a DJ of some sort.
Van Johnson: Right.
And actually, in the old ordinance, which was overturned to create this new one that’s causing the current situation, those types of bars were specifically prohibited from allowing minors. The trouble was that many of those “booty bar” clubowners flagrantly broke this law, and for whatever reason, no one in the Police Department cited them for this and shut them down or otherwise penalized them — as was their duty. Now, in a club where there is live entertainment, there’s some sort of a focus on the performer. Most everyone is tuned into that...
Van Johnson: But in those other sorts of clubs, everyone is more focused on each other.
Exactly. Basically, people are there for four reasons: to get tanked up, to socialize, to pair off and...
Van Johnson: And get laid.
Right. And not that both scenarios are mutually exclusive, but when you have a situation where folks are essentially posturing for each other, as opposed to watching a stage show of some sort, that’s where you wind up with all the drama and the problems. So, when this recent ordinance was passed, no one on Council or with the City was able to actually point to any substantative problems of any sort at live music venues specifically, but the thing passed anyway.
Van Johnson: That’s right.
Because a lot of people found it very easy to wrap their heads around the simplistic concept of, “Well, there’s no good reason for kids to be in bars.”
Van Johnson: Well, I don’t disagree with you. But I think the other side of it was that here you had a demonstrable problem with underagers in and around establishments that serve alcohol. Now, I don’t think there’s a different crowd where there is live music per se, but we had our staff, our City Manager and our Police Department saying that if you want to put a dent into the juvenile crime issue, then this is what we suggest you do. Now, remember, this was their recommendation to us.
Sure. However, some would argue that since that ordinance passed there have been more incidents of youth crime, and more problems with clubs in general. And while some of the clubs in question have since closed down, many of the biggest trouble spots and repeat offenders were the establishments that were set up with no alcohol being served whatsoever. That’s where much of the violence and gang activity has reared its head.
Van Johnson: From the “teen clubs”.
From the “teen clubs”.
Van Johnson: That’s correct.
Some might find that ironic, too. But back to what you were saying. You mentioned that Council did their best to make sure this new law wouldn’t goof with the business of any legit restaurants. When you say to me, well, none of these people showed up to speak at the meetings, I would say to you that they likely didn’t show up because...
Van Johnson: They did not think it affected ‘em.
That’s right, they did not think it affected them. And I’ll tell you why: It’s because they —and most everyone else— perceived the whole deal to be primarily about keeping underage people out of places which are specifically designated as bars or clubs. Meaning that they do not legally make at least 51% of their gross anual revenue on food. Now, I’ve gone back and read the current ordinance. In fact, I just re-read it a few minutes ago. And what you just said to me regarding it doesn’t quite jibe. You say the city developed clear guidelines for what is and is not a restaurant and what is and is not a bar or club.
Van Johnson: There are two paragraphs. One says what a restaurant is, and mentions the 51%. And then there’s one about clubs, talkin’ about live music. Advertising, I believe is in there as well, and cover charges and those kinds of things.
But those delineations are not mutually exclusive, and that’s what’s intriguing to me about this. I see what you’re saying about the descriptions of each, but it doesn’t say that each one can’t have elements of the other.
Van Johnson: Which I would partially agree with you. Which is why, again, I asked the City Manager that if there are gaps in our ordinance...
You asked him this recently?
Van Johnson: Oh, absolutely! That’s what this is all about. I asked the City Manager and I asked him directly. I said, based on what I’ve described to you — I come to a restaurant that we all accept is a restaurant. They are asking for a cover charge at the door. There is a live band playing. The glass is blacked out. They have advertisements on the windows. And there are individuals in there that I know to be under the age of 21. Is this within our ordinance? I mean, is this allowable? And he said no. So, what I’m saying is, and I’ll be honest with you, when I spoke to the manager per se, because the doorman really had no knowledge, he said that he was told by the City that this was an acceptable practice. I didn’t tell him to, well, they’re saying that I called 911 and told them to shut it down. I didn’t call anybody to do anything. That’s not my role. I went back to the City Manager and said that was not the spirit of the ordinance we worked on, and that was not the spirit of what we approved. Therefore you need to let me know, A) are they in violation, and if they are, to enforce it. Of course, you know, there’s a lot of conjecture about me calling 911 and (that I) told people to shut their place down. No, I never did any of that.
Now, if there are loopholes in policies, well, then we are not perfect human beings. We need to be able to address that so that it is totally clear. At that point, it appeared to me that the council had one idea and the staff had another idea. Both of these viewpoints were being communicated to the business. It is only fair that the City of Savannah speaks in one voice. That one voice is the policies as approved by the Mayor and Alderman through the City Manager and communicated to the staff, so it is consistent. Again, I never faulted Locos or Wild Wings, because I believed they were acting in a way that they were told to act.
Thanks again for taking so much time to speak with me about this, Alderman.
Van Johnson: No problem.
You said that you were amazed to see city personnel standing around not doing anything to shut down what you perceived as a flagrant violation of the city’s liquor ordinance. I know you’ve covered this already, but I want to ask you directly: could it be that you, Councilman, are in fact the one that has misinterpreted the ordinance, and you are now standing your ground out of pride?
Van Johnson: We can’t misinterpret something we made! That’s the cart before the horse! The Council makes policy and the staff implements the policy. I think the intent of the Council was clear. If it got lost somewhere in the transmission then the staff needs to make a policy that’s at one with Council’s wishes.
You’ve said that the City is speaking out of both sides of its mouth and selectively enforcing its liquor ordinances. There are those who say that by your singling out of Locos and perhaps now the Wild Wing Café and others, that this is itself a type of selective enforcement taken to an almost absurd extreme, and that if one were to apply your reasoning across the board, then even a place like the swanky Olde Pink House restaurant would be affected, because they offer a live pianist playing several nights a week to entertain their diners. How would you respond to that?
Van Johnson: It is what it is.
What does that mean?
Van Johnson: You know, the reality is that it’s not selective enforcement. I personally witnessed an example I believed was a violation of our policy. My question to the City Manager was is this acceptable under our policy and who else is doing it. Obviously, I don’t go to every restaurant and club in the city. Again, we need to make sure from a policy level that we are fair and consistent with the application of our ordinances. The only reason Locos came into it was that I walked in there as a patron. I love their food. And before this happened I ate there often. Both at lunch and dinner.
So, you mean to tell me that all this time you were going there for both lunch and dinner, with all the advertisements and posters for the bands and the big calendar of live music right by the front door that you had never noticed that they prominently featured live music on the weekends? I mean, I’m not trying to be argumentative here, but Locos really hypes their concerts. And what a lot of folks are taking away from these articles in the paper and the comments you’ve made online to those who have criticized your position, is that you’ve made a big point of saying, “What kind of a restaurant charges a cover?” Now, there are all manner of restaurants all over the world that charge covers when they are featuring live entertainment. That’s very common.
Van Johnson: Let’s just talk about Savannah. Be fair, now. Let’s only talk about Savannah.
Okay. Let’s just talk about Savannah. The truth is that for decades, here in Savannah there have been restaurants that have charged a cover to get in whenever there was some sort of special event or live artist performing which must be paid for. This includes everywhere from Kokopelli’s Jazz Club to Savannah Smiles, which is a dueling pianos bar and restaurant, and everywhere in between. Now these are bona fide restaurants, which also feature entertainment along with your meal or libations.
Van Johnson: Uh-huh.
And it seems that most everyone understands and is fine with this concept. A lot of folks find it hard to believe that you’ve never heard of such an arrangement before. So, my question is: is it truly your position that any restaurant that charges a cover to get in on nights when they feature live entertainment is actually a club that is trying to cloak itself in the guise of an eatery?
Van Johnson: It is my position that the City ordinance is clear and consistent. (long pause)
Um, okay. (laughs)
Van Johnson: I mean, I mean, I mean, again, I’m a musician myself.
What do you play?
Van Johnson: I play piano. And I’ve played in clubs. My position is not against... People want to keep tryin’ to bring me to the minor, but I’m talkin’ the major. The overriding issue is: what does the City’s ordinance say? What does it not say? And is it clear and consistent? If ultimately we decide to change it or not change it, or create a hybrid, that’s fine. But the spirit of what we talked about that day and the spirit of what we approved is not the same as I witnessed that night. All I’m asking, and all I’ve ever asked of the City Manager —regardless of what anybody has claimed I said— is that the ordinance matches our actions. Where there are gaps or ambiguities that we are aggressive to be able to clear them up. The excellent thing about policies are that obviously the body can adjust them to be able to be practical.
I also represent the downtown where most of these clubs are. So, I’m very clear about that. I’m a member of the Downtown Business Association. I represent a lot of that area.
You mean it’s not a grudge.
Van Johnson: No, it’s not grudge I have for them. It’s not personal and it was not against the club. It was regarding the City and how we’re conducting our business. As a matter of fact, I heard a complaint about Locos before from (Alderman) Tony Thomas. See, he complained about it before, and it’s just that I’m not down there a lot late at night with all this going on. Tony frequents downtown at night. He has complained about Locos’ bands and all that before. He mentioned it to me, and we had casually mentioned it to (City Manager) Michael Brown. Then I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait! You know. I just have to believe that with the intelligent people working for the City of Savannah —that we’re payin’ well— that we could come up with something that we’re able to approve that protects the public and protects our teens, and provides a viable entertainment environment for our constituents. I believe we can do that. We’re smart enough to do that.
I don’t want it to seem like we’re going over the same ground, but as I said before, something struck me when I reviewed the ordinance in question, and I wanted to comment on this. You were quoted as saying in an e-mail to the City Manager that you feel that Locos and the Wild Wing Cafe were flaunting their violation of existing city law by presenting live music as entertainment. In the case of Locos, they were limiting entrance to those either 21 and up or 18 and up, and keeping track of any underage patrons by the use of wristbands. Now, you’re talking about how this doesn’t fit in with the spirit of the law. However, its quite clear in the ordinance that any legitimate, bona fide restaurant which derives more than 51% of its gross annual receipts from the sale of food as opposed to alcohol, is allowed to present live entertainment as an attraction, and it also says clearly and unambiguously that if they do so, they are allowed to let in underage patrons, but must designate them as such in some manner —and it even goes further to specifically suggest wristbands— and strictly prohibit them from buying or otherwise gaining access to alcohol while they are on the premises.
Van Johnson: Again, that was not the intent or the spirit of the ordinance.
But that’s clearly what it states.
Van Johnson: That’s why I went to the City Manager.
So, let me get this straight. What you’re saying now is that the law as written...
Van Johnson: I don’t have it in front of me, so I’m not in a position to read it. I’m taking what you say. I’m telling you that we talked explicitly about this issue. The designation was going to be if there are establishments where alcohol is served, unless they are bona fide restaurants, if they are a club or a bar, then individuals who are younger than 21 are not allowed to enter. Period.
Well, this is what I’m getting at. Let’s talk about Locos specifically. As they explain it to me, they make approximately 75 percent of their annual receipts from the sale of food.
Van Johnson: They’re a restaurant.
Yes. They are a restaurant. The reason their windows were blacked out on the night you were there is because they designed some special soundproofing panels to cover the glass so they wouldn’t run afoul of any local noise ordinances.
Van Johnson: I heard the music from a block away. Which is a violation of the noise ordinance, but I won’t even go there yet.
My point is that they are a restaurant, and they were a restaurant when you showed up there that night.
Van Johnson: That’s correct.
They were only charging a cover to pay for the entertainment.
Van Johnson: There were underage people in a bar.
No, there were underage people in a restaurant.
Van Johnson: The restaurant was acting like a bar! Again. I’m very clear about what this Council intended.
Here’s what’s confusing me: you could still order food in there. They were serving food as they had all day.
Van Johnson: It was a club! For legal purposes, take everything inside of there. It was a club when I walked in there that night. There was food, and there was alcohol, but I can tell you there was more alcohol goin’ on than food! I can count the individuals who had food!
But that’s not what the law says decisions of this sort are based on. It’s not about how much food is ordered on a given night. There’s no good way to track that. It’s an annual percentage.
Van Johnson: That is why I went to the City Manager. I’m gonna keep goin’ back to this. Because the overriding issue is that the ordinance fit what the Council decided to do. I mean, that’s it! It’s important for businesses to be very clear and understand what the council intended. It is important to our ordinance to fit that which the Council intended. And, so that our business establishments can be very clear, we should speak with one voice. That one voice must be the ordinance passed by the City of Savannah, as it relates to these things. If it does not fit whet the Council intended, then we should be able to fix that. And I asked the City Manager to tell us where the gaps are so we can fix that.
Do you find it likely that there will be some sort of a hybrid designation which will evolve for places that want to operate in this manner?
Van Johnson: I’ve offered that as a solution. However, with some very strict guidelines. Again, we’re not human. People are not perfect. Now, let’s go back to the fact that both Locos and Wild Wings both had underage violations. There were convictions in Recorder’s Court. I just wanna put that out there as a sidebar. Now, let’s go back to what I was sayin’. We’re human. We make mistakes. If that’s the case, and the policy is not practical, then that might be something the Council might wanna look at. A hybrid, or some type of something to be able to address this particular problem. But that is something Council comes up with.
What sort of strict guidelines would you envision in a hybrid designation?
Van Johnson: There would have to be law enforcement there for a security presence, like we have our clubs to do. There’d have to be some type of a security presence.
But there are all sorts of clubs here in Savannah that don’t require a special security presence.
Van Johnson: When you talk about the number of individuals that were in, or that would be in what we refer to as mega restaurants, you’d want to have security there.
Is there such a legal definition as a “mega restaurant”?
Van Johnson: No, no. I’m just meaning larger than a normal restaurant. I think we can agree that Kokopelli’s — no, not Kokopelli’s, but Locos and Wild Wing are large restaurants. Well, larger than usual restaurants. They’re also both, what, two floors?
I believe both of them have more than one level, yes. So you would be advocating the legal capacity of a bar or restaurant determining whether or not they were required to hire extra security or law enforcement personnel? You’re not suggesting that every bar or restaurant be forced to hire off-duty police on a nightly basis?
Van Johnson: I don’t know. We pay a staff to come up with those types of things for us.
Locos owners’ position is that they are a restaurant that does most of their business from food, but occasionally on Fridays and Saturdays, they’ll have live music, and, like all sorts of restaurants throughout the city from downtown to way out Southside, they use the live music to draw in folks who want to have dinner and then hang out afterwards and listen or dance or whatever...
Van Johnson: Not if they’re underage.
So, you’re saying that if a family with a child...
Van Johnson: A family and child is different. That’s why we went through all of that in terms of the restaurants. That’s different than teenagers hanging out in there, and I saw teenagers in there that night.
But if a restaurant also serves alcohol, and it’s late at night...
Van Johnson: There were no families in there listening to that particular band.
I understand that. Would you acknowledge that there are certain times of the day —specifically late at night— when it is simply financially illogical for restaurants to keep their kitchens open, because most folks have no desire to eat at 12:30 or 1 am, but instead are primarily interested in enjoying live music either with or without imbibing?
Van Johnson: Well...
Locos’ owner says that not being able to have live music in there on the weekends is killing them, and that it’s not fair to deny them that right under the ordinance as it stands — especially when so many other places are being allowed to continue the same practice.
Van Johnson: Then petition the city for a change in the new ordinance! There’s a process whereby this happens. You petition the City. The staff investigates it. They bring it to the Council. The Council deliberates and we make a decision. There’s a protocol in place. You can’t just do it on your own and decide that its okay.
You said you’re a piano player. Do you currently play?
Van Johnson: Uh-huh.
Where do you play?
Van Johnson: Well, I’ve done jazz clubs, I used to be in Top 40 bands, but I just don’t have time for that anymore. Now I mostly play in churches and those types of environments. They allow people under 21, but they don’t have alcohol.
Locos has told me that since this has come out in the press that they are losing tons of money, and people have heard rumors that the club has either lost their liquor license, or are in danger of losing it. They also say that because they are contractually bound to all these bands that were booked long in advance of this, they’ve been forced to essentially pay them not to play, and they’ve had their worst single week sales-wise since they opened over three years ago.
Van Johnson: I feel for ‘em. Obviously there’s a cost of doing business and business people, they understand that. But, you know...
Have you given any thought to the number of restaurants — some of which have been Savannah fixtures for decades which would lose untold thousands of dollars each in revenue if these laws were changed to prevent them from offering live entertainment at night the way they do — and the immense negative ramifications that could have for their employees and the community’s economy at large, not to mention the livelihood of hundreds of local musicians who support themselves solely or in part through playing regularly at local restaurants?
Van Johnson: Are you reading that blog?
Am I reading what blog?
Van Johnson: That guy’s blog online, ‘cause it sounds exactly like that.
No. This is my own question. I have seen the back and forth on the Morning News’ website, but I don’t even know who most of those people are on there. It just so happens that this is something that’s on many people’s minds.
Van Johnson: Yeah, well, it’s phrased almost exactly like that other guy.
Well, I can’t help that, but it’s a valid question and the point certainly resonates with me. Part of my job here at Connect is covering the bar and restaurant scene as far as live entertainment goes. We’ve had an explosion in the past four or five years of restaurants that offer live music. It has been a boon to local musicians and to the local economy. In fact, I just wrote an article that has not yet been published for a national magazine, about Savannah’s nightlife. It’s geared toward tourists and telling them what they can look forward to if they come to town.
Van Johnson: Okay.
So, about two weeks before this whole thing erupts, I’m interviewing local artists, and this one fellow, who has lived and worked in L.A. and toured all over tells me that Savannah’s nightlife reminds him a bit of Austin, Tx. Now Austin’s world-famous as a live music town.
Van Johnson: Okay.
And this man says that for him, the best point of Savannah’s music scene is that in the downtown area, you can walk back and forth in about an eight or ten block radius and find all sorts of restaurants and bars that feature live music, and you can pop in, grab a bite or have a drink and see great entertainment. For many players and singers, the advent of these restaurants and bars featuring live music has allowed that to become their sole means of support. I’m just wondering if —as a musician yourself who has played professionally— you have given any thought to the terible impact for those folks that would go along with any sort of limitation or abridgement of these opportunities.
Van Johnson: Sure. But again, our first responsibility to the Council is public safety. Period. That being said, I think we’re all interested in the financial viability of our community, but not at the cost or the detriment of public safety. Going further, I’ve asked the City Manager to investigate this. One of their investigations will be to determine what the affect of this is. This Council in the past four years has probably been the most activist Council in terms of seeking public input. I’m sure before we make any decisions, the public will be asked to come back in. Those individuals who may not have seen the need to come in before may see the need this time to make sure their concerns are heard. I’m sure, as we have done before, we will evaluate their requests and make a decision based on what we feel is the right thing to do. And that is how democracy works.
Locos tells me that the reason they have not had any live music there for a few weeks is because they are concerned that even though they and their lawyers believe they are completely within their right to operate as they have been under this ordinance, and no official judgement has been passed on this...
Van Johnson: Well, it is our ordinance, and we grant the license. So...
So, they’re not having any music because they’re worried that to do so would be seen as confrontational.
Van Johnson: It would.
And they’re worried that it would be somehow used against them to deny their liquor license, which is coming up for renewal in the next few weeks.
Van Johnson: When it comes up to us it will be because of the underage violation, and you need to say that there has been an underage violation there.
The owner tells me that before this incident with you, there had only been one other Police service call in the entire time they’ve been open, and while they acknowledge that they once mistakenly served a minor, that is the only charge of any sort they’ve incurred in more than three years.
Van Johnson: I’m not familiar. I mean, I know there was an underage violation, and I know that an individual was convicted.
But you don’t know if it was one violation or more than one?
Van Johnson: I believe it was one, but don’t quote me on that.
And yet, even as they have stopped presenting live music and are losing thousands of dollars a week, over the next few nights there are probably going to be between 30 and 50 live music events taking place all across the city at restaurants which operate in the same or a similar fashion as Locos. Is it not hypocritical on some level that they should not be allowed to continue their business practices at least while this legal argument is being deliberated? They feel they are being singled out and intimidated into stopping what they’re doing, while others are being allowed to continue.
Van Johnson: No, no, no. Now, I resent the use of that term. I’m not intimidating anybody!
Well, whether or not you personally are trying to intimidate them, they feel intimidated, because they are still not being given a straight answer as to whether or not they can go ahead and conduct their business without untold consequences.
Van Johnson: Okay. Well we didn’t do anything to make them feel that way.
But that brings us back to the reality that there are several dozen places that are full-service restaurants which are doing essentially the same thing, and are not in any way hiding this. In fact, they’re openly advertising it.
Van Johnson: Then that goes right back to what I said before. We have an issue with our own staff. Because again, the staff enforces the ordinances, (laughs) that the City Council approves. I’ve asked the City Manager how many such businesses are operating in this manner and to come up with something to address those. It is not my responsibility to go around to every club and see what’s going on. We pay people to do that. If there is a disconnect that is occurring, it is the responsibility of the staff and the City Manager to come up with a remedy to address it. If the ordinance is inadvertantly hurting businesses that are by and large doing the right thing, then it is up to the City Manager to come to Council acknowledging it and come up with a plan to address it.
That’s how the policy works. That’s not done by an Alderman demanding that a club should be shut down — which I never did, That’s not my function. It’s not done by an Alderman saying a particular club is wrong. I did not do that. I asked a question and once I got the answer I needed, I went to our staff and they agreed. The City Manager told me that the spirit of what we talked about —regardless of what’s on the paper, was not being followed. So, where’s the disconnect?
So, if there is a disconnect, how does something like that occur between what the Mayor and the Council agree upon and what is written into law. I mean, you guys do read all this stuff before you vote on it, right?
Van Johnson: Exactly. Which is another reason, and I guess you know these fellows.
Van Johnson: The people at Wild Wing. I mean Locos.
Not well. We’ve met once or twice and I’ve spoken to them on the phone a few times.
Van Johnson: I guess these fellows, I have not heard from them particularly. I heard they wanted to speak with me, but that’s not my function. I can’t say yes or no about anything. Now, it all comes down to public safety. I could see looking at this again. But until then, the law of the land is the law of the land. And the City Manager’s interpretation of it and the City Attorney’s interpretation of it is that this use is not allowed by a restaurant. There is presently not a hybrid arrangement. They have to act accordingly.
Do you feel that since this ordinance was enacted well over a year ago that public safety has been increased?
Van Johnson: Yes.
Do you have any sort of statistics of any sort to prove that to be true, other than just your notion of things?
Van Johnson: No I don’t. I don’t. Obviously, those are issues that the Police Department would have to come up with. I have nothing demonstrable at all. But, when it was brought to us, it was brought to us by our staff in the name of public safety! So, again, this was not Council-driven. This was staff-driven. They said we needed to do something about this because this is a problem. So, I’m sure you remember, they brought all this information about the “entertainment district” and this and this and this. They brought all this stuff up, and I don’t know if public safety is or is not helped by this. My concern personally was that I was in a place with all this live music going on and individuals that I was almost sure were underage.
And they may have been.
Van Johnson: And in my mind, that does not mix. That’s a problem waiting to happen.
Michael Brown made a big point of saying to Council during deliberations on this ordinance that there were no towns in Ga. that allowed anyone underage into clubs where alcohol was served to see live music.
Van Johnson: I remember that, and I remember somebody challenged it.
That was me. I explained that simply was not the case. That there are plenty of places where that is allowed and where it seems to function quite well, with proper enforcement. That would have taken anyone less than five minutes online to confirm, and yet when I brought this up to Council, it was instantly discounted by the City Manager, who then went on to basically say that everyone’s mind was made up and that the ordinance was going to be passed regardless.
Van Johnson: I do remember that we looked to see, and we never could find anything like that. He quoted State law, remember.
Yes. Listen, I know you don’t have confirmation of this in front of you, so we’re just talking hypothetically, here. But I know there are numerous places throughout Ga. and tons of places all over the country where people from the ages of 18 through 20 are routinely allowed into bars and clubs specifically to see live music, comedy and theater. They’re closely monitored and prevented from getting access to alcohol. It’s a common practice in college towns, and through proper enforcement, will allow young people to enjoy nightlife and culture without illegally drinking.
Van Johnson: The key is proper enforcement.
I agree. The key is proper enforcement.
Van Johnson: And for whatever reason, it appeared from what the City Manager and the Police were presenting to us that proper enforcement was not occurring. So this was a reaction to the perceived lack —or real lack— of proper enforcement. That is the premise under which this issue was brought to us. Again, this was not Council-driven. This came to us from the staff, and Michael fought hard for his position.
Would you agree that one of the biggest problems we have in Savannah right now is that our existing laws are not being consistently and vigorously enforced?
Van Johnson: I think a lack of enforcement is a problem everywhere. Not just Savannah. We wanna make sure there is equity, because I think people want to play by the rules as long as the rules are fair — even if they disadvantage them in some type of way, they’ll play by ‘em. In this case, there is a lot of confusion over just what is fair. Again, that’s why I went to the City Manager, to say look at this and come to us with something else. The individuals who are attacking me on this don’t remember that this was Michael Brown’s baby in the first place.
And he basically insisted that it was going to pass, because he believed it was the only way to go, and sure enough, it did.
Van Johnson: I hope that is reflected in your piece. I think that’s part of the reason why this all has occurred. The Council was the one who raised the issue about restaurants. I remember we were talking about places like billiard halls and Applebee’s. It became an issue because then Applebee’s couldn’t let nobody in there. Then again, Applebee’s don’t have bands.
Maybe they should.
Van Johnson: Maybe they should. It’s the City Manager’s responsibility to come back and say maybe this is not working as good. We’ve been doing this for a year or whatever it might be. This is what we’ve come up with. The crime rate now is different, maybe we should revisit this. We should be able to do that. But ultimately the Council is accountable to the citizenry, not the City Manager and not the staff.
Alderman Johnson, it means a great deal to me that you took so long to speak with me and address these questions. It will add immensely to the article to be able to add your voice to it.
Van Johnson: Well, it’s no problem. Again, I just wanna make sure that the truth is adequately reflected.
I’ll do my very best.
Van Johnson: I would appreciate it.
Of course. Happy holidays.
Van Johnson: Same to you.
City Ordinance in Question Regarding Underage Patrons in Bars and Restaurants:
Sec. 6-1223. Drinking, possession of alcoholic beverages by minors unlawful.
(a) Unlawful for minor to drink or possess alcohol. It shall be unlawful for any minor to drink or possess any beverage containing alcohol in a place where alcoholic beverages are sold and in any public place or on the streets or sidewalks of the City of Savannah.
(b) Unlawful to procure alcohol for minor. It shall be unlawful for any person to procure, assist in procuring, or participate in any way in procuring any alcoholic beverage for any minor in any place where alcoholic beverages are sold or dispensed.
(c) Unlawful to allow minors to enter alcohol establishment. It shall be unlawful for any person holding a license for the selling or serving of alcoholic beverages to the public for consumption on the premises, or any of such person’s clerks, servants, agents, or employees, to permit any person under 21 years of age to enter said premises, except as provided in paragraph (e) below. This prohibition shall not apply when such person has been furnished with proper identification showing that the person entering is 21 years of age or older. For
purposes of this section, the term “proper identification” means any document issued by a governmental agency containing a description of the person, such person’s photograph, or both, and giving such person’s date of birth and includes, without being limited to, a passport, military identification card, driver’s license, or any identification card authorized under O.C.G.A. Sections 40-5-100 through 40-5-104.
(d) Unlawful for minor to enter alcohol establishment. It shall be unlawful for any person under 21 years of age to enter such premises, except as provided in paragraph (e) below, or to misrepresent his identity or use any false identification for the purpose of entering any such premises.
(e) Minors permitted to enter restaurants, other establishments, under certain circumstances. Persons under 21 years of age may enter premises licensed for selling or
serving alcoholic beverages to the public for consumption on the premises where such premises are bona fide public eating places, restaurants, dining rooms, and similar establishments holding licenses for the serving of food and where food is actually and regularly served, establishments providing live entertainment, hotels, auditoriums, athletic facilities, stadiums, festivals or other such premises. However, if such premises has a separate barroom area then such persons shall not enter the barroom area. An establishment shall be deemed to be “providing live entertainment” at any time (i) when one or more live performing
artists, such as a musician, singer or comedian who is employed by the establishment to perform is actually performing on the premises and (ii) when all patrons present on the premises who are under the age of 21 are clearly identified as such by a wrist bracelet or other recognizable mark or device.
(f) Provisions not applicable to employees. The provisions of this section shall not apply to persons under 21 years of age who are working on the premises either as an employee or an independent contractor, which persons may enter and remain on said premises while they are working, and at no other time.
(g) Copy to be posted. A copy of this section shall be posted in a conspicuous place in any business licensed by the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Savannah to dispense alcoholic beverages if such business admits at any time persons who are under 21 years of age.