NEW PORT RICHEY — A sharply divided City Council agreed Wednesday evening to allow people to drink beer and wine at Sims Park during special downtown events.
The new policy would do away with controversial restrictions that put Sims Park off limits to alcohol vendors — and their customers — during such events as Chasco Fiesta or Bike Week. Wednesday's vote was the first of two required before the revised ordinance can go into effect. The second hearing is scheduled for Nov. 18.
The 3-2 decision comes eight years after a nonbinding public referendum in which nearly 70 percent of voters rejected the idea of selling alcohol at Sims Park.
Mayor Scott McPherson and council members Rob Marlowe and Judy DeBella Thomas voted in favor of the change. Deputy Mayor Bob Consalvo and council member Marilynn deChant voted against it.
Alcohol is not allowed on city property except during special events, when the nonprofit civic organizations putting on the events apply for permits from the city. Currently, those permits allow event vendors to sell alcohol at Cavalaire Square, a pocket park south of Main Street.
People can drink alcohol at Cavalaire Square or on public sidewalks but have been expected to toss their drinks before heading into Sims Park, where the musical entertainment and most of the vendors are set up.
The new ordinance says that no more than 12 alcohol permits can be approved each year; that the permit holder will be responsible for the city's costs — police officers, for instance — of regulating alcohol sales and that the City Council may require the groups to pay for an off-duty police officer to be stationed at the playground at Sims Park.
Supporters of the new policy said Wednesday that the alcohol restrictions were difficult to enforce, frustrated responsible drinkers and cut into the amount of funds that nonprofits, already under severe financial strain because of the economy, can raise during events.
Resident Sandy Barley said Wednesday that the new ordinance would be conservative enough to dissuade irresponsible drinking.
"It's not easy to get beer at these events when it's done the right way," he said. "If somebody's going to overindulge themselves, they're not going to Sims Park to do it."
Joe Alpine, president of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, said allowing the sales in the park would represent a step forward for the city. He made reference to deChant's recent comments that she did not need alcohol sales at a downtown arts festival she used to run.
"We can't keep looking to the past, to an arts festival or a referendum that's nine or 10 years old," he said.
Opponents said they don't like the idea of alcohol in a park where children play, that it will bring irresponsible drinking to Sims Park and that the 2000 referendum should be respected.
"I'm disappointed that the people who spoke in 2000 are just being forgotten," resident Greg Giordano said Thursday. He said the city should have gauged public opinion before it made the changes, and he did not rule out he and others trying a petition drive to put it up for another referendum.
The council's vote Wednesday, he said, is "saying 'we think we know better.' And that's not how this thing works."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.