“Even downtown, voices carry.”

— ‘Til Tuesday

I listened, fascinated at the words coming from the voice on the other end of the phone.

“If a Walmart or a Publix says they want to come to town in your district, are you going to vote against them because they sell beer and wine?” that voice says, and it carries a conviction that unquestionably comes from the heart. “It is ignorant to push policy that drives businesses away. And I can give you a long list of them right here in our community.”

The voice on the other end of the phone (who asked not to be identified, choosing instead to find a “peaceful way to proceed without making waves”) is one of three that has reached out to me in the past few days to talk about the law and how it’s applied. When I’ve begged off, saying I’m not informed enough to offer definitive answers to their questions, they’ve persisted, telling me stories that are eerily similar.

These voices have been so sincere and so convincing, I have delved deeper into their concerns to try and formulate an answer.

The problem is, the voices said, members of the local government have told them or acquaintances of theirs that if they think they’re going to get an alcohol license in those officials’ domain of influence, they, essentially have another think coming.

“We’ve been told, flat out, ‘If you think you’re getting an alcohol license in my territory, you’re dreaming. I control that,’” one said. “Who gives this person that right?”

As it turns out, no one.

Despite perhaps well-intended efforts by some officials to keep the bad that alcohol does out of specific neighborhoods, the truth apparently is that they are overstepping their boundaries. As one irritated voice said, “These elected officials, they overreach way too far.”

Albany City Attorney Nathan Davis, given no specifics, just asked for an explanation of city laws that govern such instances, said that while zoning regulations do come into play, there is no law by which an elected official can keep a qualified business from opening, even if that business sells products deemed harmful by some officials.

“There are objective qualifications when it comes to granting alcohol licenses in the city,” Davis said. “There are qualifications such as the number of bars in a specific area, and there are limitations on proximity to schools and churches. But the obligation of granting or disapproving an alcohol license must be based on those standards.

“There’s even due process, where if there are objections to a business obtaining a license, he can meet (with city officials) to respond to those objections.”

Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher said she too delved deeper into the subject of alcohol licenses at the commission’s recent retreat. An official with the Georgia Municipal Association spelled it out clearly, Fletcher said, that the city is flirting with a lawsuit when it refuses a legitimate license without cause.

“This lady said, ‘Saying “we don’t want this in our neighborhood” is not a legitimate reason (to deny a license),’” Fletcher said. “Her exact words to me were ‘That’s illegal, and doing that could wind up putting you in a lawsuit.’”

Fletcher said she asked about the alcohol license issue because a number of business owners who met the standards Davis spoke of were denied licenses by the commission.

“These are legitimate businesses, businesses that generate tax revenue,” she said. “And we’re telling them no (to alcohol licenses) because of personal preferences. That leads to a question: Where does it stop? Do we take the rolling papers out of stores, the e-cigs? We know these are leading to illegal activity. Can we as a government deny a business the right to do something that our charter allows because we don’t like it?”

Maybe it’s best to let one of those voices sum up the situation.

“We put you in office to represent us, not your own personal beliefs,” that voice says. “What you are doing is delegitimizing yourself as a representative.”

Sometimes, it’s a smart thing to listen to those voices.

Email Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.

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