The stated public support for extending New Port Richey's ordinance allowing alcohol sales at special events downtown has been nearly unanimous. Only two people spoke in opposition to the measure at a public hearing earlier this month and the City Council approved the first reading of the proposed ordinance on a 4-0 vote with only the mayor, a strong proponent, absent.
Despite what appears to be overwhelming sentiment, this shouldn't be the last call for public discussion. We urge the city to again poll its registered voters at the ballot box to affirm the anticipated final approval of this ordinance by the council. It is simply the right thing to do given the proposal contradicts the results of a referendum nine years ago in which 69 percent of those who voted rejected the idea of selling and consuming alcohol at Sims Park downtown, which is the site of a concert amphitheater and a popular children's playground.
Considering turnout in the 2008 municipal election was a miserable 6 percent, the council could schedule the referendum for later in 2010 at either the August primary or the November general election if it wants broader voter input.
Such governing by referendum is not new to the city. Over the years various council members have resisted the idea of sharing library services with Pasco County by pointing to a 1988 nonbinding referendum in which municipal voters said they wanted New Port Richey to maintain control of the city library. If straw polling guides single-minded thinking on budgets and books, why shouldn't it do so for beer as well?
Mayor Scott McPherson argues the 2000 petition drive and referendum on alcohol sales was driven by misinformation to alarm residents. If that is truly the case, then the mayor should call for the nonprofits, businesses and other beneficiaries of the ordinance to educate the electorate on the advantages of the increased fundraising for community services.
This public debate has been renewed because next week the council is expected to authorize extending and expanding a one-year ordinance allowing beer and wine sales in Sims Park and Orange Lake Park at six downtown events a year. The one-year audition was a compromise reached in 2008 after nonprofit groups and downtown business interests again advocated for expanded beer and wine sales at outdoor festivals.
The measure allows charities to profit from alcohol sales on city property — beyond the previously restricted areas of the Cavalaire Square pocket park and on private property — to help compensate for the dwindling government subsidies for the groups.
So far, it is working. Data provided by McPherson showed increased beer sales at the recently completed Cotee River Bike Fest resulted in donations totaling about $13,500 to the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce and three other nonprofits. That is more than double the $6,000 distributed after the limited beer sales at the 2008 bike fest.
Meanwhile, police reported no increased problems attributed to the increased availability of alcohol.
It is that kind of information that should be shared with voters, but it is the electorate who should have the final authority to approve beer and wine sales in the downtown parks. A public body confident in its decisionmaking abilities and the soundness of the protections contained within the ordinance shouldn't be shy about ordering up a round of voter validation.