A day after the historic election of the Barack Obama as president of the United States, the New Port Richey City Council majority decided it had its fill of democracy. On a 3-2 vote, the City Council approved, on first reading, an ordinance allowing sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in Sims Park during special events. The action ignores the result of a citizen-driven referendum in 2000 in which 69 percent of the voters rejected a similar ordinance.
The arrogance from the council majority is unsettling. A more appropriate tactic is to approve the ordinance next week while simultaneously scheduling a referendum for next year's municipal election. It again gives the voting public the ability to weigh in on a controversial ordinance without requiring opponents to collect petition signatures to force the referendum and shows that the City Council is not tone deaf to past public opinion.
Just as important, it gives supporters of the measure nearly five months to schedule and conduct a downtown event at which alcohol would be available in Sims Park. There would be no better way to defuse the opposition than to demonstrate limited availability of beer and wine during special events will not be detrimental to Sims Park nor the people of New Port Richey.
The quest to allow local non-profit groups to benefit from alcohol sales on city property began nine years ago as a fundraising idea from the Community Cooperative, the precursor to Greater New Port Richey Main Street. The City Council approved the ordinance allowing beer and wine sales in designated areas at downtown events, then retreated in the face of strong opposition and settled on a second ordinance limiting alcohol sales to Cavalaire Square, the downtown pocket park.
The ordinances, well-intended attempts to ween the cooperative from public subsidies, were modeled after other cities' successful controls, including Clearwater. Its Jazz Holiday proceeds doubled to $45,000 the first year it allowed beer and wine sales and enabled the festival to donate thousands of dollars to community groups as a result. Regardless of the perceived benefits, New Port Richey voters repealed the ordinance in 2000 and balked at expanding alcohol sales to Sims Park.
Eventually, the City Council allowed alcohol sales again at Cavalaire Square and on private property during specially permitted outdoor events. However, that, according to Mayor Scott McPherson, has led to problematic enforcement and clandestine drinking in Sims Park anyway. McPherson asked for the new ordinance proposal pointing out the potential for increased proceeds for charities at a time voter-approved property tax exemptions under Amendment 1 are limiting government revenue and the traditional city subsidies to nonprofit groups.
McPherson, and council members Rob Marlowe and Judy DaBella Thomas approved the ordinance five days ago, and the second and final reading is scheduled for Nov. 18.
We don't have a problem with the ordinance, just the truncated process that ignores the referendum from eight years ago. Sims Park belongs to all the city residents, not just the City Council majority or charity groups pushing the proposed ordinance. The City Council shouldn't be reticent to seek voter input again. That is, unless it's afraid of democracy.