By Sharon Burton, Editor
The City Council gave first reading to an ABC ordinance Monday night that establishes regulations for the sale of alcohol within the city limits.
When the city gives first reading, it does just that. City Council members do not vote. They only hear a summary of the ordinance and get a copy of the ordinance. They can discuss it. But they don’t vote on it. It’s a completely legal process, but it is different from how the county approves their ordinances where magistrates vote on first and second readings.
Immediately following Monday night’s meeting, I asked the mayor for a copy of the ordinance. He and City Attorney Marshall Loy said I could have a copy after the second reading. Loy said the document was not a public record. They even said there was no official document. I then questioned how you have a “reading” when there is nothing to read.
After I debated the issue, Loy told me I could take his copy of the ordinance but I couldn’t print it because there are changes. I refused; I will not take a public document with a stipulation on it, no matter who makes the offer.
Mayor Hardwick said he would give me anything I wanted. That was not really true because I wanted a copy of the ordinance. He said I could “look at it.” He did pull out four of the twenty plus pages that referred to the amount of licensing fees that are required. Apparently I could have a page here and a page there but not the whole ordinance.
From the convoluted conversation that took place, I gathered there are changes to be made to the hard copy of the ordinance the council members were given. On one of the pages I was given there were mistakes, and they could be telling. The license fee read during the meeting called for a 6 percent fee on alcohol sold by the drink, 5 percent for packaged sales of distilled spirits and wine, and 4 percent on malt beverages (beer). The single page the mayor pulled had those numbers written out but in parenthesis beside them they all said (6%). The council heard the written numbers, not the numerical ones during the first reading, so obviously the text will need to be corrected.
That could be a simple typographical error or it could be indication of discussion about what those numbers should be. There was no conversation about such during the City Council meeting so we can only assume council members were not part of that change. But any conversation about making corrections to the hard copy was not made during the public meeting. Why not???????
So I have to wonder if the council got a marked up copy of the ordinance or if they were told about changes prior to the meeting but given a document that didn’t reflect those changes. Not really sure why this got so complicated.
Anyway, back the point at hand. Columbia Magazine’s Ed Waggener suggested to the mayor that the document I was requesting is public record and I should be given a copy. The mayor then told Waggener if I wanted it I could file an open records request. (It was one of those moments when you want to say, “I’m standing here. You know I can hear you, right?”)
So that’s what I did. This morning, I filed an open records request. But the thing is, the city plans to have second reading Wednesday (no public notice yet but that is what was said during Monday night’s meeting). They are making sure there is no time to publicize the original ordinance before the second reading.
What’s going on? What are you hiding Mayor Hardwick?
Honestly, I doubt much at all. I don’t think there is a big conspiracy going on. I just think the mayor presented a sloppy ordinance and is unwilling to make a corrected copy to present to the media. How absurd! And sadly, I don’t think giving the public the opportunity to know what is in the ordinance even crossed his mind.
If the ordinance needs some minor corrections, then by all means make them. I wouldn’t be writing this if it were handled correctly. For instance, at last week’s fiscal court meeting the first reading of a budget was presented and voted on. As I reviewed the budget with Jailer Joey White following the meeting it became clear I was given the wrong budget. It was not what they approved. I was immediately given a corrected one. It was just a mistake and they made sure it got corrected. No big deal. I’m only mentioning it to show that there is a correct way to make sure the media gets a correct document. Not rocket science folks.
I am waiting on the response to my open records request. But they have three days to respond, so it’s useless and the mayor knows it. I also have the option to question the legality of the first reading. Wouldn’t that be something if I fought this and ended up voiding the whole process and they had to start over?
That’s not my goal, however. At this point, my goal is just to point out the absurdity of it all. I’m not sure it will ever get better. Until elected officials actually care about the rules and care about the public’s right to know, this kind of thing will continue to happen.