What's A Newspaper to Do When The County Commission Turns Into Caligula?


The spring that I had a job watering flowers at garden centers, I made friends with a Walmart employee who complained to me about her former coworker. This woman had been all right before, said my friend, but then she got promoted to shift supervisor and it was all over. "The power," pronounced my friend solemnly, "has went to her head."

I was remembering that saying Thursday night at the Dade County Commission meeting, when it was expIained to a group called Concerned Citizens Who Voted Yes to Distilled Spirits that what they had actually voted yes to was giving the commissioners the authority to issue liquor licenses--when, to whom and under what circumstances they saw fit. It was essentially, "L'etat c'est moi" in a friendly conversational tone.

For those who didn't do French history, that's a famous statement by His Majesty Louis XIV translating roughly, "Ah am the gummint!" (The power had definitely went to his tete.)

Yes! Here I go again, wasting another editorial on liquor by the drink. It's not that I feel any mission to bring the miracle of alcohol to rural Dade County. It's just that everything about the way the county commission has handled the booze ish has outraged my sense of justice so fundamentally I want to scream and kick ass.

See, I always go around with this big D across my metaphorical sweatshirt for DADE COUNTY and also for DEMOCRACY, and at The Planet I do a lot of cheerleading for both. When other people are cynical about local gummint, I tell them, "Your commissioners are great guys! What you need to do is participate!"

Local government is immediate, I tell them, waving my pompoms. It's responsive! You can make a difference! Call your commissioner, I tell them, and he'll listen to you; if three people call him, he'll tell the others, "I've been flooded with calls about this issue." And if you really want to affect your environment, I tell people, attend commission meetings! That'll get their attention!

I say that all the time. Usually nobody listens. But now, for once, I see people doing it! Taking part! Showing up at commission meetings! Standing up and making their case courteously, succinctly and articulately!

And the commissioners tell them (in a friendly conversational tone) to sit down and shut up, because their minds were made up before the discussion started. It makes me look stoopid, and I hate that. But that ain't all.

At the Thursday meeting, the commission chairman not only explained to the citizens who showed up that he was in charge, and themselves dust beneath his sandals, he also went and stole my line: "I have been flooded with calls," he told them.

Not from them, he said: from citizens on the other side, the "drys." If he'd wanted to, he told the Concerned Citizens, he could have filled the room with people throwing tomatoes at the commission for allowing alcohol into the county at all.

You gotta wonder: So why the hell hadn't he?

And the answer I anyway come up with is: They. Aren't. There. Dade voted 60-40 to allow alcohol by the drink, the citizens filling the room are the Citizens Who Voted Yes, and the only people still saying no are county commissioners who seem determined to save Dade from itself.

Or sometimes they seem determined to save Dade from itself. Other times, they seem weirdly determined to drench it in whiskey and turn it over to the corporate fleshpots.

Anyway, while I don't believe the chairman has actually been "flooded with calls" from people begging him to keep Dade dry, I am willing to bet if he has, these callers have not been imploring him, "Oh, please please, Mr. Chairman, if you can't save us from the dens of iniquity, can you at least make sure each has 60 seats!"

Every once in a while, if you look and look, you see a "dry" post on Facebook worrying that LBTD will lead to increased drunk driving or alcoholism. These people are presumably the commissioners' invisible fwiends, the ones they claim to be representing over and instead of the ones in front of them. But I simply cannot imagine these "drys" finding 60 drunk drivers or 60 alcoholics more acceptable than 20 or 30.

The 60-Seat Rule Let's get it straight: There's no state requirement or recommendation for a minimum-seat rule. Trenton's beer and wine ordinance doesn't have one. No. The only reason for Dade's 60-seat requirement is to keep people of modest means, i.e., small businesspeople, from serving alcoholic beverages in unincorporated Dade.

That privilege the commission is fiercely guarding for the large chain fern bar, real or imaginary, it has been batting its eyelashes at from day one. The 60-seat rule favors those large corporate entities and crushes small local businesses such as Lookout Mountain Pizza, the sole prospective applicant for a beer/wine license in the county. And no amount of male bluster and screaming IT AIN'T SO at the poor Planet is fixin' to change that.

The Commission was set on keeping Lookout Mountain Pizza from achieving a license with the 60-seat requirement. It would certainly have done so if not for the loud protests of the citizens group and it still may. At their April 6 meeting, the commissioners seemed to indicate they would allow patio seating to count toward the requirement, placating the citizens group, but Dade's 911 director spoke up, explaining fire and handicap-accessible rules forbade squeezing in too many chairs. And Chris Stone, proprietor of Lookout Pizza, said he was resigned to opening without the license.

Chris Stone is the reason I'm maddest at the commission. The citizens group coalesced to help Chris fight his cause. But when one of those citizens first called me about it, I blithely waved away the idea there would even be a fight. The commissioners were great guys, I said, and Chris was just the kind of entrepreneur they would want to help, one of their own, a local boy who had worked hard and made good. The commission, I said, would bend over backwards to accommodate him.

Instead, what do I hear? "You've got to go back and look at the intent. It was to bring in these big chain restaurants," one commissioner shouted into my recorder. "It wasn't about a pizza place." And the chairman, clinging to the 60-seat rule like a crucifix, saying, "He can build as big a place as he wants to," knowing full well that what Chris has got is 1400 square feet.

Somebody whose opinion I value told me my April Fool spoof, with the commission crushing the little guy with a Small Business Abolition ordinance, was heavy-handed and would only make the commissioners mad at me. I read it again and left it in. Yes, it was bludgeonly but the point needed to be made, the commissioners deserved far worse, and really they ought to be the ones worried about people being mad at them. Why aren't they looking after their local citizens? Why are they leaving it to citizens groups and the damn newspaper?

As to the "far worse" I could have given them, I did think of setting my spoof at a Chili's situated on the chairman's family land off Highway 299, since that is the only area the ordinance has zoned appropriate for distilled spirits.

But I'm used to believing in my guys and I decided in the end their motives were pure, that they were genuinely trying to keep Dade dry for moral rather than financial reasons, and the reason they were trying to crush Chris Stone was that he was the only one at the moment trying to open an establishment that sold adult beverages.

Happy Hours Then at the Thursday meeting, besides the rider the commissioners added allowing Lookout Mountain Pizza to count the patio as seating, they made one other change to the ordinance that did not make it into my article about the issue: They took out the rule forbidding "happy hour."

Now, how, precisely, does that fit into the moral v. financial rationale? How do happy hours promote Christian values or keep Dade's roads safe from drunk driving? No, I'm afraid it's another coquettish shake of the butt toward that big corporate chain, real or imaginary, the commissioners have got such a crush on. Lookout Mountain Pizza won't have a happy hour. I imagine Chili's does.

This is getting long but I can't leave the Louis XIV theme without pointing out something that struck me about Chris Stone's letter to the commissioners, which I published in The Planet. He asked whom the commissioners had consulted before drafting their ordinance. As I observed that process, what happened was the commissioners each gave their requirements to the county attorney, who tried to cobble something together to please them all. So Himself in District 2 might settle for 50 seats but His Majesty in District 3 was holding out for 80. If they ever consulted merchants or consumers or anyone at all who might actually be affected by their edicts, they did it at some secret meeting to which your narrator was not privy.


Another theme I considered for my spoof had to do with that famous saying of Benjamin Franklin about what gave a man the right to vote. Originally, our founding fathers had the idea that the vote should be reserved to people who owned a certain minimum amount of land. If a man didn't have land, our FFs would accept ownership of a jackass instead. But what, Benjamin Franklin reasoned, if the jackass died? Did the owner then lose his right to vote? "In whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or the jackass?" asked Franklin.

So I was flailing around with that one, trying to come up with something about the right to sell booze residing in the ownership of enough seats to hold 60 asses, but the humor of that seemed too broad even for The Planet.

Then I thought, you know, really it's the same argument, and in Franklin's case, even 200 years ago he won it. In America we don't base rights on how much property a person owns. And what about in the winter, when it's too cold to sit on the patio? Does Chris Stone lose his beer/wine license then? Anyway, I bet if he or some other small businessman hired a smart lawyer (my money's on Chris Townley every time, he da man) Dade's 60-seat minimum would go the way of the jackass.

A lawsuit opened up Dade for package sales in 1981 when a judge agreed with two small businesswomen it wasn't fair to let veterans' clubs and bootleggers sell beer, but not them. Why not sue now on the grounds it's not fair to allow 60-seat restaurants to sell, but not 20-seaters? Because it's not.

And then it struck me: Dade pays a county attorney whose keen legal mind probably went through that thought process a lot faster than mine did. Why doesn't he advise the commissioners?

LOOK OUT! Here comes another story about someone I knew in a previous life.

Paid by the hour!

This was a guy named Jimmy House I went to high school with. He was insanely good-looking and always in a good mood and all the girls were mad for him. Shortly after graduation he got a job washing skyscraper windows in downtown Atlanta. He did that from a little ledge thing hoisted by some specialized machine. One day it malfunctioned, stranding Jimmy House on his narrow ledge 40 or 50 stories high above the pavement.

It was terrifying! As I recall, it took them something like 17 hours to rescue Jimmy. The news stations got interested, and when the rescuers finally got Jimmy down a TV reporter stuck a microphone at him and said, "Were you worried up there?"

Jimmy replied cheerfully, "No, man, I get paid by the hour."

I think that the county attorney is operating on the Jimmy House Principle. He never seems to question the wisdom or legality of an ordinance, he just takes the commissioners' orders and goes to work as if he were the one here making pizzas. In my spoof I had him abolishing free speech. I was thinking then of an ordinance he wrote for the commission in 2011 or '12 abolishing the right of a certain unpopular company to open in Dade, which of course was shot down by that company's lawyer in about 22 seconds. What should the county attorney care? He bills by the hour.

Of course I don't know how to be an attorney any more than I know how to be a county commission, I'm just a hack; but me, if I were paying a lawyer I would expect some guidance. That's why they call it legal advice, or legal counsel, right?

Anyway! That is my case against the county commissioners. They were always great guys before but about this liquor ordinance they have been as autocratic as tsars and as nutso as Rasputin, one minute seeming bent on preserving temperance, the next on whiskey sour twofers at a gleaming gin joint. And in the meantime they have trampled shamefully on the locals. What's a newspaper to do but call 'em on it?

But before I go let me make it clear: Other people shout, "Vote the bums out" (and I have noticed the three commissioners who aren't up for reelection until 2020 are acting a little weirder than the others) but me, I don't want anybody voted out! I want the unfair rules to go away and my "great guys" to come back.

I want to go back to cheering D for DADE and D for DEMOCRACY, and I want the commissioners to go back to bolstering the locals, the way they're supposed to and the way I try to in The Planet.

I want them to for God's sake SOBER UP!

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