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Vote on Haywood alcohol sales comes out of left field

haywoodAn announcement by Haywood County commissioners last week that a vote to legalize beer and wine sales countywide will appear on the November ballot came as a surprise to the public, with the news still making the rounds.

It’s unclear how long commissioners had been pondering the idea of a countywide alcohol vote, which was kept under wraps until the eleventh hour. Commissioners had made no intimation — not even the slightest hint — that a historic vote on alcohol sales was in the offing until they voted to put it on the ballot last week. By then, it was too late for the public to weigh in.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the public still has plenty of time to weigh in, however, since the issue is being put to a majority vote on the ballot in November.

“The best public hearing or meeting in the world is the ballot box,” Swanger said. “We thought we would leave it up to the taxpayers to vote on. It’s that simple.”

Opponents to legalizing beer and wine sales countywide would no doubt have preferred a chance to weigh in before commissioners pulled the trigger to put it on the ballot. But Swanger said the proper venue for weighing in is at the polls — rather than trying to stop a vote from being held.

“That’s not my job to make that decision. It would be arrogant of our board not to give citizens a say,” Swanger said. “If you don’t like it, vote against it.”

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However, opponents to the idea of countywide alcohol sales feel blindsided by commissioners’ decision to put alcohol on the ballot without any inkling such a thing was in the works.

“I feel like we should have been pre-warned. I feel like the commissioners should have gotten this information out to the public to hear from us, because they work for us,” said Mark Caldwell, the pastor at North Canton Baptist Church.

Caldwell said alcohol is a dangerous and harmful drug in society, with alcohol abuse at the root of homelessness, violence, fatal crashes, broken homes, abandoned children, abuse and more societal ills. Expanding the sale of alcohol into every corner of the county will fuel alcohol addiction and abuse, and that’s why Caldwell believes the public should at least have had a chance to make that case to commissioners before it was thrust on the ballot unbeknownst to the public beforehand, he said.

“I agree in the public having a vote and having a say. But I also believe we put those people in those positions to be leaders,” Caldwell said.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said there was little to gain by engaging the public in a debate on whether to hold an alcohol vote. Even if 200 people packed the courtroom opposing a ballot measure, commissioners would be no closer to knowing where the majority stands on countywide alcohol. The only way to know for sure is to hold a vote, so why not cut to the chase and let the debate between for and against forces play out in the venue of an election?

“They can start debating now and can lobby the voters however they want,” Kirkpatrick said. “This was a pretty easy decision for me. We’ve had some tough ones lately because we have been the ones making the decision. With this, we can let the people decide. They can vote it up or down.”

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the only commissioner who voted against putting alcohol on the ballot, said his family convictions and Christian convictions wouldn’t let him vote for anything that promoted alcohol consumption.

“I feel like the more we make it available, the more chance there is for abuse,” Ensley said.

While Ensley disagrees with the direction the county took, he isn’t upset with the other commissioners for pressing onward. 

Commissioners first broached the idea of a countywide alcohol vote in public at their meeting last Monday, April 4, and voted on the spot to go through with it after only a brief discussion.

How long commissioners had been holding behind-the-scenes conversations prior to the meeting is unknown, however. But commissioners had clearly been talking about it privately amongst themselves, even arriving at a general consensus of what type of alcohol sales to include on the ballot.

The county manager and county attorney had already prepared what the sample ballot would look like accordingly — namely that the ballot measure would be limited to beer and wine but not liquor or mixed drinks.

The public had short notice, if any, that the topic was coming up. The first public revelation that commissioners were contemplating a countywide alcohol vote came mid-day Friday, April 1, when the county published the agenda for its upcoming meeting.

By the time the agenda was made public Friday — less than 36 hours before the commissioner meeting at 9 a.m. Monday morning — local media outlets had no way of getting an article before the public in time to let them know what was coming.

Only the most astute followers of local government — those with enough gumption and curiosity to visit the county’s website over the weekend and intentionally look up the agenda for Monday morning’s meeting — would have learned of the impending vote to put alcohol on the ballot.

The meeting incidentally coincided with spring break for school children and families, making it even less likely word would get out to the masses before the commissioners’ vote to put alcohol on the ballot had come and gone.

But County Manager Ira Dove said there will be maximum public input at the ballot box in November, given the coinciding presidential election.

“The main thing not to be lost here, this is going to a vote when high voter turnout is expected,” Dove said.

“It is not going under the radar. People will have a long time to gather their thoughts before it goes to a vote.”

Cherokee County voters had a countywide vote on alcohol sales on the ballot during the March primary. There, however, commissioners had openly debated the merits of holding a countywide alcohol referendum.

“It had been talked about for quite some time,” said Randy Wiggins, Cherokee County manager. 

There, a citizens group supporting countywide alcohol sales appealed to commissioners to put the issue on the ballot, a position openly championed by the local newspaper in Murphy, the Cherokee Scout.

“There were also several representatives of various religious organizations that came to the board and ask them not to put it on the ballot,” Wiggins said.

In the end, even though Cherokee County commissioners said they personally planned to vote against countywide alcohol at the polls, they agreed to put it to a vote.

“In other words, as commissioners agreed to place it on the ballot, but as citizens when it came time to vote at the polls, they suggested they would not support it individually,” Wiggins said.

A similar vote on countywide alcohol sales in Cherokee County had been defeated three years previously. By statute, there’s a three-year waiting period before a vote can be held again. This time, it passed with roughly 55 percent of the vote.

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