Franklin board split on future of ABC board
A couple of Franklin Town Councilmembers want to explore future changes to the ABC store and ABC board while other members think the alcoholic beverage operation is fine the way it is.
Councilmember David Culpepper has questioned why the ABC board only has three members instead of five like other town advisory boards. Another issue brought up by Councilmember Joe Collins has been the amount of rent the ABC board has to pay for its current facility in the Macon Plaza. Collins thinks it’s too much and that the town should look elsewhere or build a new facility.
The issue came up again last month when the town board was tasked to fill the unexpired term of Wayne Swank. ABC board Chairwoman Sissy Pattillo came to the Dec. 3 town council meeting to address it during public comment.
“We’ve been operating for 24 years. We’ve been profitable for 24 years and we’ve had 24 clean audits,” she told the board.
Pattillo said revenue from the ABC store has generated nearly $1.7 million for the town over the years. She also said the current building is an attractive and well-located store that customers appreciate.
“Sixty-five percent of our customers are female — it’s important they feel comfortable in our store. It’s attractive, well-stocked and impeccably clean — that doesn’t happen by itself,” Pattillo said. “There are 11 stores in our district and only three have five board members and the others have three members.”
She pointed out that adding two more members would cost the town another $3,000 to $4,000 a year since ABC board members are paid a small stipend for each meeting. She also invited the councilmembers to attend the ABC board meetings and come visit the store to talk to the manager about operations. The store currently has two full-time employees and six part-time employees.
ABC Board member Alton Sutton said he wasn’t trying to tell the town board what to do, but asked the board to consider all the factors before deciding to increase the ABC Board to five members.
“Why do we need a bigger board? It would be great for more people in the county to be involved but I’ve been on their five years and if I’m not mistaken through all the years we can’t get more than a couple people to apply,” he said. “If you think the board’s not doing its job then come out to our meetings every month — we’ve got nothing to hide.”
Sutton said the manager Todd Mason, who has worked there since 1994, does a great job keeping the board informed and keeping them in line with all the state regulations. He said adding more people to the board could make it harder for them to reach consensus on matters.
Sutton asked for the board to go ahead and make the board whole by appointing a third member and to take more time to consider expanding the board to five members. The ABC board has missed two meetings waiting for a third member to be appointed.
With town advisory boards, the town accepts applications from interested parties and then the advisory board makes a recommendation to the town board for final approval. Mayor Bob Scott asked that the two names interested in the ABC board be given to Pattillo and Sutton so they could make a recommendation.
Town Manager Summer Woodard said the town advertised the opening in September through October and only had two people apply. More recently, she said Jacob Reiche, owner of Smart Pharmacy in Franklin, had expressed interest in serving on the board if it is expanded to five members.
Town Attorney John Henning Jr. said a majority of ABC boards have three members but state statute does allow towns to choose to have a five-member board. He recommended filling the vacant seat immediately and advertising for another month for the two new positions if the town council chose to expand the ABC board.
Scott said he didn’t feel comfortable voting on the board expansion issue that same night without getting public input first.
“I don’t think we can vote on both issues at one meeting,” he told the board.
“I don’t advise it but you do have the authority to do it,” Henning replied.
While the question of why kept coming up, Culpepper said he would like to see more people serving on more town boards and that the current location should be evaluated because of the high rent.
“I don’t think the ABC board is doing a bad job,” he said. “There’s broad consensus that the store it’s located in now is very costly and they’re having to spend money on repairs in that facility — it may not be fair to spend that much in repairs and rent.”
Culpepper also said he would like to see better communication between the town and the ABC board since ABC revenue has a direct impact on the town’s budget.
“It’s a weird relationship but we should be able to get along and communicate directly without hurting anyone’s feelings,” he said. “I think we could use more heads and more ideas to figure out a more long-term solution.”
“Is that your sole reason to make this change?” Scott asked, adding that the ABC board meetings are subject to same public records and meetings laws as the town council. “Anyone can attend their meetings.”
Since joining the board last year, Culpepper said he’s seen how controversial subjects get swept under the rug by the board, but he didn’t want to keep kicking the can down the road.
“I know sometimes they make us uncomfortable but that’s OK — that’s our job to talk to people and bring ideas together,” he said to Mayor Scott. “You shouldn’t vilify a council member because they have an idea — we should come into this objectively, thoughtfully and have an honest open discussion without prejudgment and without you being mad at me for talking about it.”
Scott said the Franklin Town Council is probably the most open government body in the state and that every councilmember has a responsibility with issues they’re concerned about.
“If I belittled you or anybody else, I apologize,” he added.
Collins said the issue was not as complicated as everyone was trying to make it sound. He said his main interest was to maximize revenue for the town in hopes of not increasing property taxes in the near future. With two more years on the ABC store lease and Mason’s pending retirement, Collins said it was an ideal time to discuss future changes. The ABC Board pays $10,000 a month in rent. While annual revenue to the town is $70,000, that allocation hasn’t increased since 2009-10.
“I don’t see how we can go wrong with looking at it — went can’t stay where we’re at,” he said.
Councilmember Dinah Mashburn said she had some concerns about the process of gathering information in between meetings if it’s not legal for councilmembers to discuss town business outside of public meetings.
Scott reminded her that open meetings laws say a quorum of council members can’t discuss town business outside an open meeting, but that it’s perfectly legal for one member to call another member, town manager or chairman of another board to gather information on an issue.
When he attended new board member ethics training, Culpepper said he asked how a three-member board would not be in violation of open meeting laws if two members are in a room together talking. The answer he got was that they would be in violation of the law since two members of a three-member board would constitute a quorum.
Henning clarified to say those two members would only be in violation of open meeting laws if they were together discussing town business. He also suggested the town council board have a joint meeting with ABC board to talk through some of these issues.
“We have open communication right now. Give me an example of not communicating?” he asked Culpepper. “I’ve been here quite a while and I’ve never had a complaint about the ABC store in any fashion ever. I haven’t heard a valid reason to change something that’s operated beautifully for 20 years. We rank in the top 5 to 10 percent in the state.”
“Not in profitability,” Collins shot back. “I don’t want to raise ad valorem taxes — I’m looking at increasing a revenue stream.”
“If you move out of that building, you will get zero money for a long time because you’ll be paying for new building and the land we’ll have to buy,” Sutton said. “And Mr. Mason isn’t retiring, we just renewed his contract so he’s not going anywhere.”
Councilmember Brandon McMahan said he didn’t see the need for two more members on the ABC board, but said he would like to fill vacant seat as soon as possible so the board can continue to operate.
Once Pattillo and Sutton were made aware of the applicants during the meeting, Pattillo said their recommendation would be to appoint Jamison, a former town council member who understands how the board works.
Mashburn made a motion to approve their recommendation and it passed unanimously.
Woodard said she would present the board with a few possible dates for a joint meeting with the ABC Board at the council’s January meeting.