First read of alcohol law approved

COVINGTON - The Covington City Council approved the first reading of a revised alcohol ordinance Monday night that would extend alcohol sales hours, regulate activities and require permitting of establishments that sell alcohol.

The ordinance extends alcohol sales for on-premises consumption from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., Monday through Saturday, with a requirement that all drinks be cleared off tables by 1:30 a.m. Currently, 12:45 a.m. is last call for alcohol sales.

City Attorney Ed Crudup is investigating whether the council can change Sunday sales hours, which were established by voters in a referendum. Those hours are set from 12:30 p.m. to midnight.

Restaurant owners had previously requested a longer extension, saying they needed to be competitive with neighboring counties, including Rockdale and the city of Conyers, where alcohol is served until 2 and 3 a.m.

Police Chief Stacey Cotton had requested that hours not be extended, out of concern of more instances of DUIs and other illegal activity.

"My recommendation was to keep it as it is, but I believe the council needed to extend the hours because it was being requested by business owners," Cotton said. "My job mainly is to explain the impact on law enforcement and ultimately, enforce the ordinance."

Establishments that serve liquor will no longer be prohibited from having pool tables, dart boards other games, including pinball and video game machines.

The ordinance would also require managers and bartenders to obtain an annual permit from the Covington Police Department following a background check proving they have not been convicted of any felony or violation of law involving the manufacture, sale or use of alcoholic beverages or controlled substances, any sex crime or crime against children. If convicted, they must have completed their sentence, including any probation or parole.

The employees must display their permits when making transactions involving alcohol, and the permit must be renewed annually.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman questioned whether the requirement was too restrictive.

"If someone has a 10-year sentence, that would prevent them for applying for 10 years," she said. Goodman later voted in opposition of the motion to approve the first reading.

The ordinance also prohibits establishments from serving beverages in containers larger than 24 ounces; keeping less than 25 food items on the menu; holding special events not related to food service, such as lingerie shows, wet T-shirt or bikini contests and mud-wrestling; contests of skill or chance in which the prize is alcohol or money; or events providing drink discounts for special groups.

Cotton said the old ordinance does not specifically address those types of activities.

Councilwoman Ocie Franklin also asked that pole dancing and male and female reviews be included on the taboo list.

"If you don't have it written down, people are going to do it, and say, 'It's not violating the ordinance,'" she said.

The council could not reach a consensus on whether cover charges should be allowed.

Owners agreed they only charge extra on nights they have entertainment.

Katy Mote, owner of Down the Hatch, said some national acts cost as much as $5,000 to $10,000 to bring in and the cover charge offsets those costs.

The council discussed allowing only pre-sold tickets to events, but Debbie Harris, owner of Five O'Clock Somewhere, said customers like to come in late or on the spur of the moment, and likely won't pay for tickets prior to the event. She said she starts charging around 8 or 9 p.m. on the evening of a show, but customers already at the restaurant can stay for no additional charge.

"It's only to offset (the cost) and to bring better entertainment to the community," she said.

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams agreed the charges shouldn't be prohibited.

"If we're going to let them operate, we need to let them operate with a profit," Williams said. "They can't entertain for free."

Mote said that while she appreciated the efforts of the city Council to revamp the ordinance, she believes establishment owners should have been allowed to see a draft copy.

"We were going in there unprepared since we didn't have anything to go from. I feel like if we were provided that information, we would have been able to go in there with more of an idea of what issues they were concerned about and how we could go in there and fix it. You have to know what you're up against," Mote said.

Cotton, who initially suggested that the ordinance be revamped, said he was pleased with the results.

"The original ordinance was enacted in 1983. Times have changed, activities have changed, growth has occurred. There were a lot of gray areas and areas that were hard to interpret. It didn't speak to the new types of activities these establishments wanted to perform," he said. "Our job is to enforce the law. We needed guidance and that's what we got."

The vote to approve the first reading of the ordinance was 4 to 2 with Goodman and Councilman John Howard opposing.

The final reading will take place at the council's June 16 meeting. If approved, the ordinance will be effective June 17.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.