Judge ends Sunday liquor sales in Snellville

In his ruling Wednesday, Magistrate Judge Mark A. Lewis overturned the City Council's Dec. 14 decision to approve Sunday sales by council vote, rather than referendum. The judge also invalidated the seven licenses the city handed out as a result of what he called an "illegally passed ordinance."

"What the city of Snellville did ... was disenfranchise voters," Lewis said before a packed courtroom.

The city's case hinged on a provision of a state law that permits counties with populations above 160,000 -- and municipalities within those counties -- to have the option to decide Sunday alcohol sales without a referendum. The judge didn't buy that argument, which ran afoul of another provision that requires counties and cities to conduct a referendum to authorize Sunday liquor sales.

The judge's decision stunned city leaders, many of whom felt "confident" leading up to the hearing in Lawrenceville. Officials said an appeal could be in the works.

"I'm shocked by it," Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer said afterward. "[The judge] specifically said he didn't want to make any laws, but he did. The judge ruled against the city of Snellville and its citizens today."

Not everyone shared the mayor's views.

"We're thrilled, thank the Lord," said Ken Hood, one of the eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city. "We just wanted all the citizens to get a vote on this matter rather than the four citizens on the [six-member] council."

Attorney Rick Stepp, acting on behalf of Hood and the others, has maintained that residents had the right to a referendum, and that economic and religious rhetoric have clouded the issue.

"All this hogwash about trying to cram religion down people's throat, that's offensive," Stepp said.

But the economic argument is real, city leaders have said. Without Sunday sales, local restaurants face an uphill battle in attracting patrons who could drive less than a mile across city lines to drink in unincorporated, alcohol-friendly Gwinnett County, Oberholtzer said.

Some restaurants had already left Snellville because they couldn't pour on Sundays. Others with plans to set up shop in the city have decided otherwise, the mayor added.

Snellville was one of three cities in Gwinnett County with a ban on Sunday liquor-by-the-drink sales. The others are Dacula and Loganville.

Mellow Mushroom owner Barbara Cabak-Rosselle said her restaurant, one of seven serving beer and wine since the city's December decision, will suffer now that the judge has put a cork in Sunday sales.

"I'm disappointed," Cabak-Rosselle said outside the Gwinnett County courthouse. "It's going to put a hold on some of the plans I have, like for Super Bowl Sunday. People will probably go elsewhere to watch the game. It definitely will mean a loss of business."

Travis Doster, spokesman for Texas Roadhouse, said the ruling "seems like a step backward."

The restaurant's Snellville location did increasing sales over the three weeks it served beer and wine, up 39 percent over the first Sunday and 65 percent over the second Sunday, Doster noted.

‘"There is definitely a demand for [Sunday alcohol]," he said. "Hopefully, the city can reassess and next time get it right."

Councilwoman Kelly Kautz was among two city leaders against amending the city's liquor laws by council vote, rather than referendum. During the Dec. 14 meeting, Kautz told colleagues they were committing "malfeasance" and "dereliction" of office if they bypassed a referendum.

"I am not surprised by the judge's ruling," said Kautz, an attorney. "I think the citizens deserve to have a voice. The law requires them to have a voice."

Kautz plans to call for a referendum. To comply with state law, the earliest that could happen would be this summer.

The mayor said city leaders will go into executive session in a specially called meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday to review options. Immediately after the meeting, city leaders will announce how they plan to proceed.

"My recommendation would be to appeal it," Oberholtzer said. "It ain't over."

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