Judge to weigh in on Snellville alcohol controversy

“We’ve seen a 10 percent increase,” said owner Barbara Cabak-Rosselle, who has served beer and wine for the past six weeks.

Although the bulk of her Sunday business is still from food, Cabak-Rosselle said beer and wine help lure patrons — and keep them from driving across city limits to unincorporated, alcohol-friendly Gwinnett County.

“It’s a win-win if we have it, and a lose-lose if we don’t,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity [to sell alcohol] for 10 years. If it’s taken away, it will mean a decrease in sales, basically.”

The political firestorm over liquor-by-the-drink sales in Snellville will come to a head Wednesday, when a Gwinnett County judge could decide whether to permanently stop the flow of alcohol in restaurants on Sundays.

Attorney Rick Stepp, acting on behalf of eight residents, wants the judge to overturn the City Council’s Dec. 14 decision to approve Sunday sales by council vote, rather than referendum, and void the licenses the city already handed out.

On Dec. 28, Magistrate Mark Lewis issued a temporary restraining order against Snellville, prohibiting officials from doling out additional licenses for 30 days. The order didn’t affect Mellow Mushroom or the six other restaurants already serving beer and wine.

More than the political and religious ramifications over Sunday sales, Stepp said the matter comes down to residents’ right to vote.

“This is not about religion. This is not about prohibition. It’s not about standing in the way of progress. Progress is giving people the right to vote,” Stepp said. “These are residents. They want a say.”

Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer doesn’t see it that way. He believes the plaintiffs, namely the mayor’s political nemesis Robert Jenkins, are standing in the way of economic prosperity by promoting “some moral mumbo jumbo.”

“Those people who are doing this are trying to destroy Snellville,” said Oberholtzer, who plans to attend the hearing in Lawrenceville. “I will be there to testify if necessary.”

The arguments revolve around the interpretation of state law. Despite Stepp’s assertions, Snellville’s former city attorney Mike Williams has contended the city was on firm legal ground to amend its liquor laws by council vote, rather than asking for approval via referendum.

Oberholtzer pointed out the city held such a referendum in 2004, even though Snellville wasn’t required to do so, he said. Stepp argued the 2004 referendum didn’t address Sunday sales specifically, making it a moot point.

Last September, Snellville city leaders asked for a vote on another referendum to address Sunday sales. That vote was thwarted when the city attorney miscounted the required number of days between the call of the referendum and the actual vote.

Williams lost his job over the numerical blunder. He will argue on behalf of the city at Wednesday’s hearing.

In additional documents filed with the court last week, Stepp outlined the council’s actions leading up to its consideration of a referendum — actions, he said, that bolster the plaintiffs’ case.

Oberholtzer said he initially asked for the referendum in September to call “the political bluff” of three council members whom he believed were trying to put a cork in Sunday sales. One of them was former Councilman Jenkins, who voted against a second reading on a referendum.

“How can you listen to this and not laugh?” Oberholtzer asked. “His own plaintiff, Robert Jenkins, wouldn’t allow citizens to vote.”

The mayor noted another referendum would cost $10,000 for a city already reeling from a $1.1 million budget shortfall.

If you go

What: Hearing on Sunday alcohol sales in Snellville

When: 9 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.