Early Wednesday, I jokingly asked Snellville Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer if he might want to grab a cocktail later that evening. I had a feeling he might need one. A hearing on the legalities of a city ordinance that OK’d Sunday alcohol sales wasn’t even under way yet.
But gut instinct and common sense told me Magistrate Mark A. Lewis might spank the Snellville City Council for its Dec. 14 decision to approve Sunday sales by council vote, rather than referendum.
That decision didn’t sit well with some residents; eight of them filed a civil lawsuit against the city. Which brought us Wednesday to courtroom 3l in the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville.
Plaintiff Donald R. Denny approached me during a break in the proceedings. He explained why he and his co-plaintiffs filed suit. All they wanted city leaders to do, he said, was hold a referendum.
Our issue “has nothing to do with religion,” he told me.
I won’t bore you with the sometimes heady, occasionally cryptic lawyer talk that transpired during the hearing. Suffice it to say that neither Ben Matlock nor Perry Mason was in the courtroom.
The city’s defense appeared doomed from the get-go. Its focus was some hard-to-explain state provision that says counties with populations above 160,0000 — and municipalities within those counties — can decide Sunday alcohol sales — as appropriate.
Apparently, a majority of the city leaders, and their counsel, interpreted “as appropriate” to mean the City Council could vote on the matter and bypass a clearly worded state law that calls for a referendum.
From my perch, Magistrate Lewis appeared perturbed and annoyed throughout the hearing. Especially with the defense. He repeated the same line ad nauseam to attorneys for the defense and the plaintiffs:
“This court does not wish to make law,” he said. “It wishes to interpret the law.”
And that’s what he did.
Lewis overturned the City Council’s approval of Sunday alcohol sales. He issued a permanent injunction that shut off the taps at restaurants on Sundays. And he invalidated the seven licenses the city handed out under the authority of what Lewis deemed an illegally passed ordinance.
“What the city of Snellville did ... was disenfranchise voters,” he told the courtroom.
Thing is, Councilwoman Kelly Kautz had said as much when city officials debated the issue last year. She’d been one of two city officials against amending the city’s liquor laws by council vote, and not referendum.
Of course, the Fat Lady has yet to sing as it relates to this matter. Oberholtzer told AJC reporter Shane Blatt as much immediately after the hearing.
“My recommendation would be to appeal it,” said Oberholtzer, who turned beet-red when the ruling was issued. “It ain’t over.”
With this being Snellville, you can toast to that.
Rick Badie, an Opinion columnist, is based in Gwinnett. Reach him at email@example.com or 770-263-3875.
The Badie Tour: Rick Badie next visits the Hope Clinic in Lawrenceville.