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Opinions differ over city`s role in regulating beer sales

Brew-ha-ha continues in Starkville

Starkville – City officials and business owners are waiting on an opinion from the state attorney general`s office to settle a controversy over beer sales in Starkville.

In February, Starkville alderman Rob Roberson, recommended “revisiting” the city`s ordinance on beer sales. The main issues being debated in the 37-section, book-thick ordinance were selling cold beer, selling it after midnight and on Sundays, said Dan Moreland, a local businessman and owner of several convenience stores.

“According to the city attorney, the state will govern it completely and the city cannot add or delete anything,” Moreland said. “I don`t know what they`re waiting on because the city attorney has already said the letter from the attorney general spells out the city can`t deviate from the state statute on beer sales.”

Alderman Cliff Ivy, who is presiding in Starkville Mayor Mack Rutledge`s two-week absence, said the attorney general`s opinion did not address the sale of cold beer.

“The gist of it is whether they regulate the sale of it, or we do,” said Ivy. “The AG`s opinion really didn`t say yes or no and we`re waiting on another opinion. In the meantime, nothing has changed and the ordinance stands. The only way you can get cold beer is to have it served at restaurants where they serve food.”

The AG`s opinion was “a generic opinion like the president`s comments about sexual intercourse and adultery. It`s whichever way you want to look at it,” said Starkville Police Chief Larry Sisk.

Patricia Aston, special assistant attorney general who wrote the opinion, said their office was asked to address only one issue. An excerpt from the letter, provided by the attorney general`s office, states, “a task force exists in the City of Starkville, Mississippi, wherein we are contemplating amending our Beer Ordinance to provide, in certain sections of the City, that the revenue for the preparation, cooking and serving of meals shall be at least 50% greater than revenue derived from sales of alcoholic beverages.”

“There was only one specific question on whether they could have a ratio, and we didn`t think that would fall within their limited authority because that touched on sales, which is regulated by the State Tax Commission,” said Aston.

Since then, city officials have sent letters to the attorney general`s office seeking opinions on selling cold beer, selling beer on Sunday and limiting hours convenience stores can sell beer. The issues are still under consideration, with one issue “in committee,” Aston said.

Recently, Corky`s Package Store in Starkville, sold beer out of a cooler until city officials asked him to stop. Owner Corky Beane declined comment for this story.

“There were some areas (of the ordinance) that were very, very vague and some areas that involved analyzing sales of the percentage of food versus percentage of alcohol,” said Starkville Police Chief Larry Sisk.

Another issue questioned consumption of alcohol outside of restaurants – on patios, for example, Sisk said.

Curt Crissey, who owns a restaurant, a liquor and wine store and several convenience stores in Starkville, said issues surrounding the beer ordinance “continually surface” when a new business comes to town. “When someone brings it up, it`s like stirring up a hornet`s nest in this town,” he said.

Earlier this year, city officials appointed a task force to research the disputed issues.

“We`ve worked on that thing since February, and if they`d just told us about the ruling to start with, we wouldn`t have had to spend all year working on it,” said Moreland.

“I`d like to see us leave it the way it is because we`ve got a good ordinance and it`s worked good for years, but it`s not going to stand,” he added. “All it will take, after the ruling from the attorney general`s office, is one person to challenge it. They`d win, and the city would have to back down on it. Until then, it`s pretty well cut and dried what you can and cannot do.”

Crissey said action by city officials who opposed changing the ordinance backfired.

“I believe what happened is that people in city government who are averse to changing the ordinance went to the attorney general`s office, hoping to gain relief with an opinion and it backfired,” Crissey said. “What they found instead was that the city had overstepped its legal bounds and had adopted a beer ordinance that was contradictory to state law.”

One of the issues is not whether to sell beer, but whether to sell it in a cold state, Crissey said.

“I`ve attended town meetings and reminded officials of their roles as mouthpieces for the citizens` wishes,” he said. “An overwhelming majority of citizens want to buy cold beer, but city officials aren`t going to hear that from the average Joe. They`re going to hear it from the average George, who is adamantly opposed to beer in any form or fashion.”

Sisk said he would prefer the ordinance remain intact. “It`s in the best interest in the morals and safety of our citizens of Starkville to be able to control the sale of cold versus hot beer, and to control the sale of alcoholic beverages Monday through Saturday,” he said.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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