Change in Decatur alcohol ordinance clears legal hurdle for commissioner’s business
This story has been updated.
During its Dec. 19 meeting, the City Commission voted to amend its alcohol license ordinance with a seemingly minor change in language.
But the change clears a legal hurdle Commissioner Scott Drake and his business partners faced with their plans to reopen the Big Tex restaurant in Decatur. City officials said the changes were not intended to allow Drake’s business to obtain an alcohol license, but under the old ordinance the business wouldn’t have been able to obtain an alcohol license otherwise. Big Tex sold alcohol under the previous owners and alcohol sales are generally a big money maker for restaurants.
Drake said he was unaware the old ordinance prohibited Big Tex from pursuing an alcohol license in Decatur as a City Commissioner and said he did not have any involvement in changing the ordinance.
“That’s a staff recommendation,” Drake said. “I had nothing to do with that.”
He was not present at the Dec. 19 meeting. Mayor Patti Garrett said he was out of town on business. If he had been there, he likely would’ve had to recuse himself from any discussion of the ordinance.
The old ordinance said, “No alcoholic beverage license shall be issued to any city elected official or an employee of any city department, or his/her spouse or minor children; nor shall any such person have any whole, partial or beneficial interest in any alcoholic beverage license in the city.”
Drake has a business interest in Universal Joint, a restaurant chain that began in Decatur, but Merriss said that interest did not violate the old ordinance because his interest was in a Universal Joint restaurant located outside the city.
“He has an interest in other U Joint locations that aren’t located near the city of Decatur,” Merriss said. “We certainly can’t regulate what’s happening in other cities.”
But under the amended ordinance, Drake can have an interest in Big Tex if the restaurant chooses to pursue an alcohol license.
The new ordinance says, “No alcoholic beverage license shall be issued to any city elected official or an employee of any city department, or his/her spouse or minor children; nor shall any employee of any city department that regulates the sale, distribution or manufacture of alcoholic beverages have any whole, partial or beneficial interest in any alcoholic beverage license in the city.”
Garrett said under the new ordinance, Big Tex could obtain a license as long as Drake is not the applicant.
“I could own an interest in a restaurant. If I’m not the person making application it’s not in conflict with our ordinances,” she said.
Merriss said the decision to change the ordinance’s language regarding elected officials was a side issue that came up when the city staff was revising it.
“The change was recommended primarily to address the issue of being clear that city staff who regulate alcoholic beverage licenses were prohibited from having an interest in a business they regulated,” Merriss said. “We were being proactive in this regard.”
She said there haven’t been any issues involving city staff having an interest in a business they regulate. The decision to change the language regarding elected officials holding alcohol licenses was based on a review of other ordinances, she said.
“In reviewing other alcoholic beverage ordinances, most do not speak to City elected officials and when they do, it was only that they city elected official could not be issued a license,” she said. “Combined with the changing business climate, particularly as it relates to the abundance of business establishments that serve or sell alcoholic beverages, it did not seem … reasonable to prohibit all city elected officials from being able to make an investment in a business with an alcoholic beverage license.”
Garrett said the old ordinance was written at a time when businesses that sell alcohol were not as prevalent in the city of Decatur.
“We were looking at updating it to be a little more consistent with what business climate is today,” Garrett said.