Atlanta. Liquor. License.
No three words strung together bring more angst to the businesses that seek them and the neighborhoods that want a better say in how they're granted and how violations against license holders are handled.
It explains the purpose of a meeting slated for 6 p.m. tonight at Atlanta City Hall where residents are being asked to share their concerns with Atlanta's Technical Advisory Group II.
The 15-member board, created last year following legislation sponsored by At-Large Councilman Michael Julian Bond after getting numerous complaints, is tasked with a top-to-bottom review of the city's alcohol code.
ATAG, which is comprised of businesses, community leaders, attorneys and others with an interest in alcohol, is expected to make its recommendations to the city council by the end of the year.
|If you go: ATAG ll (Atlanta's Alcohol Technical Advisory Group) is reviewing the city's alcohol code. The public is invited to share its input on Thursday, Feb. 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Atlanta City Hall, City Council Chambers, 2nd Floor, 55 Trinity Ave. SW.|
"Our direction is very broad. It's to review laws, ordinances and regulations that are applicable to the sale of alcohol," said Ron Lall, one of the ATAG board members.
Lall is chairman of the SouthStar Community Development Corp., which advocates for several communities along southeast Atlanta's Moreland Avenue corridor on issues connected to residential and commercial development.
"I think there are ways we can make the process more efficient, perhaps less expensive and yet still end with better opportunities for public input and participation," he said.
“What we’re doing right now is gathering that information to understand the issues of concern in the various neighborhoods. It’s to give the public an opportunity to come and give their comments, their ideas and recommendations and complaints to the committee.”
Residents do have a say in the alcohol licensing process via Atlanta's Neighborhood Planning Units, the citizen advisory councils that make recommendations to the mayor and city council on a slew of issues ranging from zoning to alcohol licensing to land use and planning.
But problems with the process remain, particularly related to what residents in various neighborhoods say is a breakdown in how violations are dealt with.
At a recent citizens meeting with police sponsored by Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, Kirkwood residents voiced their frustrations with one bar that has been the source of many neighborhood complaints.
Among their concerns: not being allowed to present evidence of problems related to the bar in question during a hearing of the License Review Board and questions about law enforcement’s ability to enforce the laws when violations occur.
Kirkwood is not alone expressing frustration at the process; other neighborhoods, including Old Fourth Ward, East Atlanta and Inman Park have had issues and concerns related to liquor license applicants, too.
“There’s a couple of broad areas that seem to be common — enforcement of the ordinance itself after someone has received a license in terms of the capacity and ability of the police department to enforce the regulations that go with the license,” Lall said.
Staffing, or lack thereof, is a factor, he said.
There are nearly 2,000 liquor licenses in the city at bars, restaurants, nightclubs and convenience stores, but Lall said there’s not sufficient staffing.
“It’s a very wide range of business types and the police department does not have adequate staff to enforce the laws all the time,” he said.
Indeed, lack of enforcement or lack of a quick response has been a common complaint voiced at several neighborhood meetings.
In neighboring Cobb County for example, one violation automatically results in a liquor license suspension for 30 days.
Atlanta allows for the revocation of a liquor license for just one violation, but that doesn't happen often, said M. Hakim Hilliard, another ATAG member and attorney who represents liquor license applicants.
"It doesn’t happen here," he said. "They don’t get suspended at all unless there’s some huge cry about it."
Education — of the neighborhoods, police and businesses — is another area that needs to be part of the discussion, Hilliard said.
"I appreciate the frustration," said Hilliard, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge.
When the city procedures were changed to allow for more public weigh-in via the NPUs in the early 2000s, it was designed to give residents a mechanism know when new businesses were coming into their communities, said Hilliard, a former city attorney.
But residents were never given a full explanation regarding what they could require or demand of applicants in terms of liquor licenses.
For example, many of the NPUs that represent the neighborhoods of East Atlanta Patch require liquor license applicants make a presentation before the specific community in which they're seeking to do business before coming to the NPU.
But city codes only require applicants make a presentation before the NPU. Even if the NPU recommends denial to the License Review Board, it must approve licenses if applicants meet all the objective criteria established by the laws that govern local liquor licenses.
It creates an atmosphere of frustration, Hilliard said.
"Everybody suffers because the neighbors, they feel like they’re being run over, businesses suffer because they get beat up when they come through this process and they don’t know why," he said.
"The LRB suffers because no one knows that they're being directed by the lawyers to follow the letter of the law," he said.
Ultimately, the goal is to make some recommendations that balance neighborhood concerns and communities' desire to have their input taken seriously with businesses and applicants, while complying with the law, he said.
"I think the neighbors would be satisfied if they fell like the existing businesses are being held to the letter of the law in terms of the ordinances," Hilliard said. "That way, when new people come in, they won’t be grilling them like this because they know ‘we’re going to give you the license, we’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt’ because if you slip up, there’s quick and active enforcement.”