Proposal to amend ‘blue laws’ debated
“When we were sworn in, we said we would protect the health, safety and welfare of our constituents. Expanding the times just gives people more time to drink.” Pete Heine, Baker councilman
The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday deferred action for two weeks on a proposal to amend the city-parish’s “blue laws” restricting alcohol sales on Sunday, after first rejecting an amended version that was meant to satisfy some of the objections raised by opponents.
The original proposal by Councilwoman Alison Gary would have allowed retail stores and bars to open at 6 a.m. on Sundays. But Gary amended that measure during a lengthy debate so bars would not be able to open before 11 a.m. on Sundays.
After the amended measure failed by a 5-6 vote, Councilman Scott Wilson moved that the original proposal be deferred for two weeks. The motion passed 7-4
Gary said she would continue to work to get some version of the ordinance passed.
“It’s not over with,” she said. “I am going to get together with my colleagues and we are going to find a way” to get the measure passed.
During Wednesday night’s public hearing, a parade of speakers spoke out in favor of and against the proposed change.
Baker Councilman Pete Heine said he respected people’s right to drink, but urged the council to reject the proposal.
“When we were sworn in, we said we would protect the health, safety and welfare of our constituents,” he said. “Expanding the times just gives people more time to drink.”
Heine, a former mayor of Baker, said he lost two sons to alcohol-related illnesses.
“I am asking you, humbly, as a father, to consider this,” he said.
Patsy Rusk, who said she lived in Gary’s district, said expanding the hours which alcohol could be sold would have an adverse impact on crime.
“Baton Rouge has a high crime rate; alcohol and drugs are a part of it,” she said. “What’s the problem with the current law?”
Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White said if the ordinance were passed, the city’s alcohol-related crime would get worse.
“East Baton Rouge Parish leads the state in the number of DWI arrests each year,” he said.
That could increase if bars are allowed to open on Sunday, he said.
Research done by the Police Department showed Sunday would be more similar to Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, which have the highest incidence of impaired drivers, White said.
It could also extend to violent crime, White said.
“I had my statistician look at number of violent crimes we are called to in bars,” he said. “Based on the data I am looking at here, we are going to average about 10 more violent crimes per month.”
That increase would tax the Baton Rouge Police Department’s major assaults division, he said.
Several other speakers spoke in favor of the proposal.
Dave Remmetter, who owns Chelsea’s Café, said the city-parish’s current ordinance unfairly targets bar owners.
“We pay rent on Sunday, electricity on Sunday,” he said. “Why are we as bar and restaurant owners not able to open on Sunday?”
Jay D. Ducote, who operates a Baton Rouge food and drink blog, said expanding the hours would help small businesses.
“It’s not a major change in the amount of time alcohol can be sold,” he said. “This is about being a progressive city that can compete with other cities our size.”
Ducote said if he wants a drink on Sunday, he can just drive to West Baton Rouge Parish, which does not have Sunday sale restrictions.
Gary said she respected those who wanted to keep Sunday as a day for religious observance.
“Sunday is your day to practice your religion,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that we can shut down a legal business on Sunday.”
Gary also pointed out that restaurants that derive at least 50 percent of their revenue from food can serve alcohol on Sunday.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said she had been the victim of alcohol-fueled crime, but nevertheless she supported the measure.
“When I was stabbed and left for dead, the bar didn’t have anything to do with it,” she said. “This ordinance makes sense to me.”
During the debate, Gary offered a substitute motion to defer the measure addressing bars and to allow retail stores to sell alcohol on Sunday like any other day.
She then withdrew that motion and offered a third motion that was identical to the original except it prohibited bars from opening until 11 a.m. on Sundays.
That motion failed with five yeas and six nays.
Gary, Marcelle, Trae Welch, Marcelle, Joel Boé, Gary and Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois, a bar and restaurant owner, voted in favor.
Ulysses Addison, Ronnie Edwards, Scott Wilson, Donna Collins-Lewis, Mike Walker and Tara Wicker voted against.
Chandler Loupe left the meeting prior to the vote.
After the failure of Gary’s motion, Wilson moved to defer the item for two weeks.
That motion passed 7-4, with Edwards, Collins-Lewis, Walker and Wicker voting against.
After the vote, Gary assured supporters of the measure outside the meeting that the fight would continue.
“I am not leaving office without getting something done on this,” she said.
Moments after voting to defer Gary’s proposal, the Council unanimously granted a waiver of the prohibition against alcohol at the parish’s parks for the March 21-24 weekend for ZFest, the annual Zachary Arts and Music Festival.