LITTLE ROCK — Rep. John Payton is trying to give local elected officials in dry counties power that some of them apparently don’t want — authority to block applications for private club permits.
The director of the Arkansas Beverage Control Division currently decides the fate of the permits that allow restaurants and private clubs in dry counties to sell alcoholic beverages. Appeals of the director’s decisions go to the ABC Board.
"I want to return the authority to the local government," said Payton, a freshman Republican from Wilburn in Cleburne County and sponsor of House Bill 1387.
The bill, to be considered Wednesday by the House Rules Committee, would require someone seeking a private club permit in a dry county to take the proposal before the local city council or quorum court. After a review, the local governing body would decide whether to issue a resolution authorizing the applicant to petition the ABC division for a permit.
Without the resolution, the proposal could not be submitted to the state.
"I’m not necessarily going to tell them what decision to make," Payton said last week. "I hope that they make the wise decision based economic development and their local constituents and what they want. We’re just trying to put the power in the hands of government that can be lobbied by its constituents, instead of an unelected board."
Apparently, though, many elected officials oppose Payton’s bill and think the current system should continue. They argue that HB1387 would politicize the process at the local level, clog up court dockets and ultimately inhibit economic development.
The Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties both oppose HB 1387.
"I think it’s ridiculous," said Conway Mayor Tab Townsell. "It’s really just sticking another hurdle in the way of getting approval because it requires all the drama of a public hearing, taking public input, requiring the city council or quorum court … to go through all the process but (they) have no authority."
About 260 private clubs are permitted to sell alcoholic beverages in the state’s 37 dry counties, according to the ABC. Payton said his bill would not affect those operations.
The lawmaker said he filed the proposal after receiving emails and telephone calls from constituents concerned about a private club permit issued recently in Stone County despite public opposition.
Under Payton’s bill, the local decision should be based on whether the proposed private club "would serve public convenience and advantage" and would be based on the same criteria ABC officials use — estimated economic impact, amount of available law enforcement to serve the private club and residents of the dry community, comments from the public and the number of private clubs already in the community.
If the local government body rejected the request, the decision could be appealed to circuit court within 30 days. The court also would have to determine whether the private club would serve the public interest.
Ron Fuller, who has served on the ABC Board for 16 years, said courts have ruled that moral objections can’t be considered in deciding whether to approve an application for an alcohol permit because alcohol is a legal product and is taxed.
"A lot of the objections that we get at the ABC Board are religious in nature when opposing alcohol permits," he said. "We are not allowed by the courts to consider religious and moral objections to alcohol. We are obligated to follow the laws of the state of Arkansas when considering these permits."
He also said the volume of petitions that groups submit to the ABC Board for consideration cannot be considered, and the number of people opposed to a private club cannot be the deciding factor.
State law allows for private clubs to be located in dry counties as long as they meet specific criteria, he said.
Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said the organization’s board voted to oppose the measure.
"This wasn’t really giving (local governing bodies) local control to decide. It was just giving local control to say no," Zimmerman said. "Our group felt that it was better left handled by the ABC folks."
ABC Director Michael Langley said the issue of private clubs is "volatile" at the local level.
"It’s kind of like taxes," Langley said. "It’s not something that city councils and quorum courts want to deal with because it can not just affect their ability to get re-elected but it can affect their businesses at home."
Langley said appeal of a local governing board’s decision to circuit court would add a year or more and additional legal fees to the permit process.
Fuller said a number of cities in dry counties, including Conway, Jonesboro and Van Buren, have been able to revitalize their downtown areas by attracting restaurants with private club permits.
In Conway, the first private club restaurant was issued a permit in 2004. Now there are 25-30 in the city, Townsell said.
"It’s been a significant shot in the arm economically," the mayor said. "Since 2006 our restaurant industry in Conway — just restaurant, not alcohol, just restaurant sales — has grown 43 percent. Now the portion of that that is attributable to private clubs is right at about 20 percent. Again, that’s just food sales, that’s not counting the additional money brought in by alcohol sales."
More hotels also have located in the city.
"Many people who had to do business in Conway, because of the lack of private clubs or options to have adult beverages with your meal, would stay in Little Rock," Townsell said. "So we’ve had a huge (increase) in the hotel industry, as well."
Townsell acknowledged that private club permit does not guarantee success for restaurants. Several that opened since 2004 have closed, he said.
Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman declined comment on HB 1387, and Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin did not immediately return a telephone seeking comment Friday.