Post and Courier
September 18, 2014

Charleston City Council members on 12 a.m. bar closing: Regrets, we've had a few

Posted: 06/08/2014 06:00 a.m.
Updated: 06/08/2014 09:59 a.m.


By Brian Hicks

Several Charleston City Council members are going through what may be best described as, well, a hangover.

They are regretting their actions, feel a little embarrassed and swear that they will never ever do it again.

This is often the case where alcohol is involved.

Nearly half of the 12 members of council now say they have real problems with the 12 a.m. bar closing bill they passed on first reading last month.

In fact, they say now they wouldn't vote for it again as it is. And that puts the city's latest plan of corralling the burgeoning "entertainment district" in real jeopardy.

Then again, you'd have to be drunk to bet against Mayor Joe Riley.

Still, all is not harmonious at City Hall. Various council members say the ordinance was rushed through, that it suffers from a lack of input from the food and beverage industry, and they fear it is inherently unfair to put different rules on different businesses.

All of which, by the way, Councilman Dean Riegel said on the night of the vote.

"It's hard to believe there wasn't anybody who voted against this," Riegel says, tongue firmly in cheek.

Anybody besides him, that is.

Go to sleep, drunks

The backlash to the ordinance has been amazingly well-organized - especially if you assume that mostly drunks oppose it.

Well, drunks and business owners.

The City Paper printed up a kind of wanted poster featuring the photos and phone numbers of all council members, and people have called. And called.

The bar and restaurant owners have been lobbying hard.

But the biggest voice has come from social media, which has had everything from a photo of Mayor Joe Riley imploring everyone to "Go to sleep" to a parody Twitter account by Sleepy Mayor Joe.

Among the tweets from this account: "Everyone knows that people start falling off of the rooftop bars after midnight. Facts are facts."

Now, no one is saying there are no problems right now. But they thought the first-reading vote would start the conversation, not set their path in stone.

Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson had misgivings but supported the first reading out of respect for the mayor and the police chief, who insist something must be done.

She agrees something should be done, but not to the point of harming businesses. Go after underage drinking or the troublemakers, but don't enforce unfair rules on some bars and restaurants.

"The food and beverage people have still not been asked to the table," Wilson says. "We asked them to help us revitalize upper King Street and now we do this. I guess they did it too well."

Councilman Aubry Alexander says, as written, this ordinance penalizes business owners for the actions of some of their customers, and that's not fair.

"I think we made a rush to judgment," Alexander says. "Am I happy with myself? Absolutely not."

Both Wilson and Alexander say that, unless there is some serious discussion - and serious revision - they will vote "nay" alongside Riegel next time.

And several others are leaning that way.

A tweak here ...

The final answer here may come sooner than later.

Many council members say that dragging this process out over a year is ludicrous. They need to pull everyone together, listen to ideas and put together some comprehensive policy that is sensible and fair - but reasonable. Tall order.

Councilman Keith Waring realized the ordinance was no panacea, but a starting point. He says the entertainment district may not even be the biggest problem. In West Ashley, there are bars that abut residential neighborhoods much closer than King and Market are to private homes.

"As the community evolves, so should the management of it," Waring says.

He has a point.

Waring is actually happy to get all the feedback he says he's gotten. He and Councilman Gary White are both soliciting ideas. White is not talking about voting against this, but concedes the ordinance could be "refined."

Mayor Riley says this ordinance is no more about picking winners or losers than any other action - setting height limits on buildings, for instance, or Board of Architectural Review oversight. He says he welcomes the input of council, but argues this ordinance is vital to preserving downtown livability and voting it down would be a mistake.

"There are always ways to tweak or improve an ordinance," Riley says. "When everybody sits down, if there is a way to adjust it, we'll see."

Right now, there seems to be far less accord than there was last month when council passed the 12 a.m. bar closing on a 12-1 vote. The only thing everyone agrees on at the moment is that Charleston has a problem.

And, as the alcoholics say, admitting you have a problem is the first step.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com