Board ponders long-term solution to illegal alcohol sales

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A convenience market whose employees have been repeatedly charged with selling beer to minors got off with a $1,500 fine at Thursday night's meeting of the Elizabethton Beverage Board.
   However, the repeat violations piqued both the business and board members to rethink what punitive actions may deter future violators.
   Elizabethton City Council, acting in its capacity as the Elizabethton Beverage Board, gave representatives of the Road Runner Market, 416 State Route 91, the option of a $1,500 civil penalty or having its license suspended for 90 days at the board meeting following Thursday night's council meeting.
   The store was cited for its third violation in three years of selling beer to a minor during a sting operation conducted by the detective division of the Elizabethton Police Department in October. The violation was the market's fifth offense since 1997. Punitive action against violators are based on the number of violations over a rolling three-year period.
   The company also owns the Road Runner Market #116 on West G Street. That market has no past history of being cited for illegal beer sales. The attorney representing the company, Richard Pectol, told the board the manager of that store and the employee were moved to the 416 State Route 91 location after the second violation.
   "Did we get it done? No," Pectol told the board. "Do we need help? Yes."
   Despite the violation, council members gave a sympathetic ear to the company and particularly the store manager's plight. The manager lost a $1,600 bonus from the company as a result of the alleged sale, Pectol said.
   "I feel like they are trying harder than anyone," said Mayor Sam LaPorte.
   Pectol stated the company would be willing to fund a "cop-in-the-shop" program similar to that operated in Johnson City. The program places police officers in establishments to stop patrons who attempt to buy beer illegally. The program is funded by both the company and Johnson City Police Department.
   The company's director of marketing, Bill Broyles, told the board the market's cash register only validated beer sales if a legal age was entered into the machine by the employee. It was up to the employee to make sure the sale was valid.
   "This thing isn't worth a dime because it's not working," said Councilwoman Janie McKinney, who made the motion for the penalty.
   The employee who allegedly made the sale, identified as Crystal Hill, has not been located to face the charge in General Sessions Court. Pectol indicated to the board that Hill suffered a series of personal problems within hours that she allegedly made the sale. Pectol said she was fired by the company after management learned of the sale.
   Elizabethton Police Chief Roger Deal said he felt the program was effective, but he questioned overextending officers to work during duty or on their off days.
   "The only thing we're after is compliance," Deal said. "We are a small department."
   City Attorney Roger Day stated that District Attorney General Joe Crumley could instruct prosecutors to make mandatory jail time a part of trial or plea arrangement with defendants charged with selling alcoholic beverages to minors. If prosecutors followed a policy requiring a defendant convicted of a sale to serve two to 10 days in jail, employees around the city could raise their awareness considerably, Day said.
   "A lot of people are going to be real careful because no one wants to go to jail," said Day.
   The first violation of Road Runner #141 was brought before the Beverage Board in December 1999 when the board imposed a $250 penalty and three-day permit suspension for the first violation. The company received a $750 civil penalty on July 20, 2000 for the second violation, and a $1,500 penalty for the third violation on Sept. 13, 2001. The fourth violation reportedly occurred in September 2001, just six days after the board imposed the $1,500 penalty.
   The board had suspended the market's off-premises permit to sell beer for 180 days in December 2001 following the market's fourth violation in two years. An attorney representing the company appealed the Beverage Board's ruling into Chancery Court. In a court hearing held in March 2002, Chancellor Richard Johnson reduced the suspension of six months to 90 days and ordered the company to pay court costs in the case.  
   City Clerk and Director of Finance Brad Moffitt also advised the board that State Line Market on Highway 19-E had not renewed their privilege tax license to sell beer.
   A request to the board from Gregory Maupin seeking to obtain an off-premises beer permit at 101 East Elk Avenue was deferred.
   Prior to the board meeting, the City Council voted 7-0 to submit a grant application to the Recreation Resources Division of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to secure $50,000 to construct a picnic pavilion at Franklin Pool. A funding match of 50 percent -- or $50,000 -- is required by the city if the grant is approved.
   LaPorte pointed out that funding for the project was not in the city's fiscal year 2005 budget. City Manager Charles Stahl said the city did not budget tax dollars nor make contingent the grant's approval to complete the project.
   "We are not budgeting any tax dollars," said Stahl of the project. He said the city envisioned the pavilion being constructed via inmate labor from the Carter County Work Camp with in-kind and charitable donations from local organizations that would make use of the pavilion.