In Snellville, legal battles and political discord are as ubiquitous as subdivisions and strip malls. The man often at the center of the political fray in the Gwinnett County municipality of 20,000 is Jerry Oberholtzer, the city's mayor and spokesman.
Oberholtzer, 51, sat down with the AJC to talk about the city's legal and political turbulence, the most recent of which stems from the City Council's Dec. 14 decision to approve Sunday alcohol sales by council vote rather than referendum.
Last week, a judge overturned Snellville's decision and closed the tap on Sunday sales. On Tuesday, the city announced plans to appeal. Meanwhile, leaders hope for a stay of the judge's order so seven restaurants can pour again.
Here's the interview, edited for space.
Q: The recent flap over Sunday sales has stirred a lot of debate. Voters approved alcohol sales in a 2004 referendum, but critics say that vote didn't address Sunday sales specifically. Why is this issue so important to go to the mat over?
A: Not having Sunday sales has hurt us economically. The issue [after the 2004 referendum] was, "We don't need this to grow." Well, the grand experiment failed. It's a minor thing, but it's like a linchpin to keep the city growing. We have whole generations that are bypassing the city because we don't have entertainment. We don't have the restaurants. We're not like the Dunwoodys. We're not like the Midtowns that attract younger generations. This generation wants more. They don't want the house on half an acre. They want to be entertained.
Q: Some have argued, "Why appeal? Why not just have the referendum?"
A: You read the judge's decision. He's made law. And now that's the case law that defines [Sunday alcohol sales]. You can't let that lie.
Q: You've talked about the economic impact of restaurants not being able to serve on Sundays. You say it's driven away patrons, restaurants and hotels. Can you explain that?
A: You look at the Avenue. That development is right outside the city, but all the new restaurants went there. Basically, when restaurants look at locations, [the ability to serve on Sunday] is one of the things on their checklist. It's not a deal breaker, but it's a deal maker. The big issue is we want to be able to have the [seven] businesses serve again. It's certainly made an economic imprint. Restaurants were selling more. They had more people. And then it was taken away from them and immediately, their sales dropped. Now they're going to miss out on the Super Bowl.
Q: How do you see Snellville, economically speaking, compared with sister cities such as Suwanee and Duluth?
A: Look at where Snellville and Suwanee were back in 2003. When I became mayor, they didn't have a downtown; we didn't have a downtown. Now they have a downtown. They have housing. They've got class A office space. We don't have any of that.
Q: Recently, you were bypassed to be chairman of the Gwinnett Municipal Association. You said some of your colleagues thought you might be too controversial. Do you think you're too controversial?
A: I was trained as an engineer, so I'm a problem-solver. I see the problem, I look at the solution and then move forward. So it's black and white with me.
Q: What do you mean black and white?
A: Look at the liquor thing. It's growth and stuff. I don't consider myself controversial. You have to go back to 1999. Basically, we threw out an established regime that had run the city for a long time. There are people in Snellville who believe it should be 1960s again or 1970s. They sort of turn a blind eye to the problems. Pawn shops, look at how they've proliferated along [U.S.] 78. If you're not going to get those high-end retail establishments, restaurants, businesses, who are you going to get? You're going to get pawn shops. You're going to get tattoo [parlors]. Those aren't the things you want to see in your city.
Q: Snellville has a reputation as a political hotbed. Why is that?
A: At one time, Snellville was the poster child for sprawl. That was in the '80s and '90s because we didn't handle growth well. And there for a period of time ... [city leaders] were doing everything right. Then we elected folks who didn't share that vision. Instead of arguing how we grow, they said, "We don't have any ideas, but we know your ideas are wrong."
Q: Does Snellville have an image problem?
A: We do. We do. That's something we talked about at our retreat, about remaking our image. That's one of our top five issues.
Q: Your term as mayor expires in 2011, and you're term-limited. What do hope will be your legacy?
A: My legacy is the city center -- City Hall, senior center, the recycling center, the PD [police department]. We came up with our downtown plan. We've added sidewalks. We've bought parkland. And we'll be known as the [city] that wouldn't give up on liquor. And I hate that because that's such a minor thing of all the great things that we've done. I think what pains me most is we could have done a lot more. Last night, I was going back through my meeting minutes and notes through 2006 and  and even . I just go, "We didn't do anything." ... That hurts me. We made good headlines for the newspaper, but we didn't make Snellville a better place to live.
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