COVINGTON, Ga. - The Covington City Council agreed in a split vote to allow City Attorney Frank Turner to draft ordinances breaching the subject of hospitality drinks and brown bagging within the city limits.
The split vote, which tallied Councilmembers Ocie Franklin, Hawnethia Williams and Chris Smith against drafting the ordinances and Councilmembers Josh McKelvey, Kenneth Morgan and Michael Whatley in favor of drafting the ordinances, left Mayor Ronnie Johnston to break the tie and vote in favor of drafting ordinances for the council to review.
Once drafted, the ordinances will go through a first and second reading, in which changes can be made before it is approved. In each reading a majority of the council must vote to continue moving forward with the ordinance in order for it to continue through the process.
To help with drafting the ordinances, Turner will work with the Covington Newton Chamber of Commerce to send out a survey to business owners within the city limits. Once the surveys are returned back, Turner will compile the information into a draft ordinance and talk with each of the councilmembers to see what they want in the ordinance.
Turner said if two councilmembers have differing views on something in the ordinance, he will provide options for the council to decide between.
Chamber looks for middle ground
Covington Newton Chamber of Commerce President Ralph Staffins said he has been approached by 39 different businesses that are in favor of the change.
“I think it’s my job as the chamber president to represent those businesses and they have decided that this model enhances their business model,” he said.
He said he thought it was important for the business owners and the council to find some middle ground in setting restrictions within each of the ordinance.
“I think there’s things that we could do, or you could do as a council, to limit this,” he said.
However, Smith did not agree that the chamber should take a stance on the issue either way.
“The chamber of commerce taking a stance either direction, I have a little bit of heartburn on with something of this magnitude because it does affect the whole city and the city is a big player for the chamber,” Smith said.
Smith said he believed the council has already found middle ground on the alcohol issue by allowing seven restaurants on the square to serve alcohol, both inside and on the sidewalks outside their locations.
Business owners ask for regulations
Business owners also spoke in favor of updating the ordinance and allowing both hospitality drinks and brown bagging in the city.
Angie Blair, owner of Blair on the Square, said she previously offered a monthly “Sip and Shop” event at her retail business to bring community together. She said she had set up limitations for the event, which included identification requirements, a cut-off limit and some sort of food also being served.
“It’s a matter of choice,” she said. “If you don’t want alcohol, you don’t have to participate.”
Ann Wildman, owner of WildArt, said since she has not been able to offer brown bagging at her business, she has lost more than $3,000 in business.
“You’re killing me,” she said. “You’re killing me. I have other cities that want me. We’re dragging our feet and I know we want to do it right, but you’re killing me.
Not everyone wants change
Also presented in the meeting was a petition that included the signatures of 81 people who were not in favor of the ordinance change. Wanda Briscoe, who presented the petition, said she feared things getting out of control and young people being exposed to alcohol at a young age.
“Several of ‘Old Covington,’ I call it, have contacted me and they’re very concerned that we’re changing our town at a rapid pace, too fast,” Smith said. “They want us to slow down the process.”
Smith also said he has spoken with business owners on the square who are not in favor of changing the ordinance.
“Sometimes we have to look at the change whether we want it or not, it’s going to come,” Williams said. “But I also have to look at the image that Covington has portrayed and is portraying of Covington and what we want to portray.
“Born and raised here, I have an image of Covington, but naturally it’s no longer that.”
Williams, who voted against drafting the ordinances, said she wanted to hear from the Covington Police Department (CPD).
Franklin, who voted against drafting the ordinances, said she has also lived in Covington for a long time and seen a lot of change.
“When I decided to run for a city council seat, it wasn’t about me it was about the people in the City of Covington,” she said. “I know is change is coming and growth comes with change but how it comes is very important to me.”
She said she believes there is already enough alcohol on the square as it is.
Covington doesn’t want to move backwards
McKelvey said he has been contacted by businesses interested in coming to Covington, but they have completely changed their minds because of the lack of a hospitality drink ordinance.
He said he has heard from a lot of people on the issue and the “overwhelming majority” of them are in favor of updating the ordinances.
McKelvey said he felt it was not the council’s job to serve as the “kings and queens” of Covington. He encouraged the council to “get the heck out of the way,” and allow the businesses to respond to the demand.
“We’re not putting a saloon on every corner in Covington,” he said. “This stuff has been going on for years and it’s just coming to the forefront because people are getting reported and things like that.”
Johnston said he did not understand taking a step backwards and not allowing the changes.
“It’s called growth,” Johnston said. “We’re trying to get people an opportunity to be successful and have a job.
“Is it all because of the alcohol? No, it’s not all because of the alcohol, but in the world we live in today it is part of the puzzle.”
Whatley, who was born and raised in Covington, said he has seen Covington continue to be one of the only cities in Newton County to progress. He credited the growth Porterdale has seen to the addition of alcohol in restaurants and bars in the city.
“We’re going to come up and shake this thing down,” he said. “Either it falls together as a piece in the puzzle or it shakes down to something we can’t work with.”
The Covington City Council will meet Monday at 6:30 p.m. at city hall for its regular meeting. As it stands, the alcohol ordinances are not on the agenda for discussion.