Discussion among parties launches Oneonta into ‘right to vote’ case

Parties in the Neal vs. City of Oneonta “right to vote” case met in Blount County Circuit Court last Wednesday for a preliminary discussion of issues in the upcoming challenge to Oneonta’s scheduling of a special “wet/dry” election to determine whether liquor may be sold legally inside the city. The case was filed against the city by Brandon Neal, a local attorney, after the city accepted a petition to call a wet/dry referendum from a local pro-alcohol group.

According to state law, Blount County municipalities, along with municipalities in two other counties, were excluded by legislative act in 2009 from being able to hold a local referendum on the matter. The local election scheduled is thereby illegal, according to the plaintiff.

The City of Oneonta will maintain that the act, now embodied as Code of Alabama 28- 2A-1, is unconstitutional. Citizens of Oneonta and other Blount County municiplities have the same “right to vote” in a wet/dry referendum as towns and cities of 1,000 or more population in other counties, according to that view.

The case could have implications far beyond Blount County since a number of municipalities around the state have already held elections and voted to legalize alcohol sales in their jurisdications, as empowered by the act. The legal status of those elections may be called into question if the act is found to be unconstitutional.

While the final status of Wednesday’s discussions remains in limbo pending Judge Steven King’s ruling on a court date, it is thought that Blount County municipalities Blountsville, Locust Fork, Cleveland, and Hayden will be allowed to join the suit with Oneonta, according to city manager Ed Lowe and others who were present in the courtroom Wednesday. No apparent protest was offered by the plaintiff Wednesday to that outcome.

Attorney Jeff Sherrer, representing Locust Fork at the discussion among parties Wednesday, said that the hearing date set by the judge would normally have to be set at least 60 days following the preliminary discussion, according to law. It may be set sooner if all parties file a waiver with the court expressing their willingness to be available for an earlier date, if the calendars of all parties can be cleared. Some, but not all, of the parties have already filed such waivers, he said.