Municipal alcohol elections morph into ‘right to vote’

The issue of sale of alcoholic beverages has turned into an issue of the right of self determination for Blount County municipalities of 1000 or more population – essentially a question of the right to vote for citizens to decide whether to legalize alcohol sale in their own towns. That, according to the reply to a lawsuit filed in March in Blount County Circuit Court.

In 64 other counties in the state, citizens of towns of that size already have the right to vote in wet/dry municipal referenda. However, because of an act passed by the Legislature in 2009, citizens in Blount and two other county municipalities were excluded from that provision. There’s more to that story than appears here, but this article will focus on the lawsuit arising out of Oneonta’s challenge to that legislation.

In the Blount County wet/dry election of last year, the dry side won countywide by a narrow 160-vote majority: 11,587 to 11,427. But in Oneonta, the vote went the other way, with a 57-percent majority in favor of legalizing sale of alcoholic beverages. That doesn’t help wet proponents in Oneonta however; it was a county-wide referendum, with the outcome affecting the whole county.

That fact, coupled with a petition from 30 percent of the qualified voters to hold a municipal referendum to legalize alcohol sales within Oneonta, prompted the city to begin an effort to respond to that petition. That response took more than one form, but only the actions leading to the current lawsuit will be covered here.

In summary, without setting a specific date for the election, the Oneonta City Council moved to appropriate funds to hold it. An Oneonta attorney and resident, Brandon Neal, filed suit to prevent the election from being held, based on existing state law noted above.

In its reply to the filing, Oneonta’s answer and counterclaim held the state law to be unconstitutional, based on the contention that citizens in Oneonta were being unfairly denied their right to vote. (Citizens in towns of more than 1,000 population in 64 other coun- ties in Alabama are allowed to determine whether to sell alcohol by local referendum. Why not Oneonta?)

There is a favorable legal precedent involved in the city’s position, according to city manager Ed Lowe. A 1969 law allowing a local referendum to be used by municipalities to decide the matter of alcohol sales, but excluding counties below a certain population from that privilege, was found to be unconstitutional by the Alabama Supreme Court, Lowe said. Those counties could not be excluded, the Supreme Court ruled. So the city’s position has a fair chance of being upheld, based on that precedent, he said.

Two other Blount County municipalities – Cleveland and Locust Fork – have joined the suit with Oneonta. Two additional municipalities – Blountsville and Hayden may do so – depending on the decision of their city councils. That is all the municipalities in the county with sufficient population to qualify under the stipulations of the law.

“We think it’s significant that all five of these municipalities in the county have joined or considered joining this action,” Lowe said.

Since the law is being challenged on grounds of its constitutionality, Oneonta has written Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange advising him that a constitutional question is being raised. That gives the attorney general an opportunity to render an opinion or to join the case on one side or the other if he so chooses. A response is expected within about two weeks, Lowe said.

At that time, with or without participation by the attorney general, the lawsuit is expected go forward with a date set in Judge Steven King’s 41st Circuit Court to hear the case and render a decision, according to Lowe.