Liquor referendum could be resurrected in new election year

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   As guest speaker at the Elizabethton Rotary Club luncheon on Wednesday, Johnson City Mayor Peter Paduch said Carter County should have liquor by the drink. "Why don't you have liquor by the drink over here?" he told Rotarians. "There's nothing wrong with alcohol; there's nothing wrong with drugs if you use them right."
   Paduch's remarks came before several local business leaders and raised a question that has been on the minds of many Elizabethtonians for some time. Although given the priority of maintaining appropriate social standing at their house of worship, most likely wouldn't acknowledge it.
   Members of the Elizabethton City Council reacted to Paduch's comments and a few offered their own take about liquor by the drink referendum put to city voters.
   "It certainly something that merits the attention of the community, because it does seem to cost us opportunities to bring restaurants to town that sell alcoholic beverages," said Elizabethton Mayor Sam LaPorte. "However, the wishes of the entire community need to be taken into account."
   Councilwoman Nancy Alsup said decision belonged to the citizens of Elizabethton. She also candidly said many residents of the city and county patronized restaurants in Johnson City that operated full bars.
   "I think it would help bring revenue into the city because we have so many people who go to Johnson City and patronize restaurants that serve liquor by the drink," Alsup said. "They say they're going for a steak dinner but they are still supporting business in Johnson City that are supporting liquor by the drink.
   "I don't think we will have any nice restaurants in this town until we get liquor by the drink."
   At least one council member is opposed to liquor by the drink, but believes the issue will come to the forefront when the 2004 election year rolls around.
   "I feel like it will go on the ballot," said Councilman Richard Sammons of the measure. "I don't think we need it in Elizabethton ... but it is going to be a coming topic."
   According to state law, a petition must bear the signature of at least 10 percent of registered voters in the county or municipality who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election. The county general election will be held Aug. 5, 2004.
   Despite popular belief, municipal government officials or council members do not have a direct say-so in passing an ordinance permitting the sale of mixed drinks or allowing citizens to vote for a liquor-by-the-drink measure. That responsibility lies strictly with citizens who may submit a petition to their county's election commission requesting a referendum be placed on an election ballot.
   Johnson City voters approved the existence of liquor stores, or package stores, by referendum in 1967. Voters approved liquor-by-the-drink in 1980. The referendum was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which effectively ratified the referendum in favor of Johnson City in 1982.
   While Sammons felt Paduch's remark likely referred to the proper use of prescription drugs, but was said in an inappropriate context.
   "That's shocking for his community and for us all," he said.
   The city's Mayor Pro Tem, Sam Shipley, said liquor-by-the drink had "a lot of pluses and minuses" to being adopted by a city. Shipley said the argument over liquor by the drink did not revolve around wanting alcohol. The key, Shipley said, was giving the public a chance to make the choice.
   "It isn't a matter of being for or against really," he said. "It is a matter of increasing the opportunity for persons to choose."
   Councilwoman Janie McKinney said she wouldn't be surprised to see the referendum on the election ballot next year. "I think that is a decision that the voters are going to have to make," said McKinney, who declined to say whether she opposed or supported the measure.
   Councilman Pat "Red" Bowers also declined to comment on the issue, but also said he would not be surprised to see a referendum during the election season next year.
   "In Carter County," said Bowers, "nothing surprises me."