Only those closely following the scheduling of meetings in New Port Richey, or receive updates from Mayor Rob Marlowe, would have known about an innocuous city council workshop held at 5:30 pm on Tuesday. Up for discussion was the City’s alcohol “special event” ordinance.
I wrote an editorial on that very same ordinance two weeks, decrying the fact that City Council members had violated this ordinance by approving Bike Fest’s application to serve alcohol this weekend. Wouldn’t you know it, two weeks later council members held a workshop on rewriting the ordinance and it would appear that the majority of councilors are willing to remove the limit on the number of alcoholic event permits they can issue every year.
While council members did not outright vote on any measures at that meeting, based on the following quotes I’ll let you guess who is supporting and who is against the ordinance.
Deputy Mayor Judy Thomas wanted to remove the limit. “Why don’t we just remove the number so we don’t have to revisit this–and follow state law. I don’t think this necessarily will snowball,” she said. This would be an opportune time to mention that Thomas is the director of New Port Richey Main Street, a city-affiliated non-profit that has hosted four such alcohol-serving events this year. I’d certainly hope that she will abstain from the vote on this ordinance should one happen for that reason.
Councilman Jeff Starkey wanted to push for a change in the “types” of events, a slight but important distinction from his colleagues, and one that makes sense. “I think we should have an alcohol ordinance. I think we do need to regulate it. I’m in favor of letting businesses use the square,” Starkey said, “I would like to see different types of events. I don’t see the need for having a limit, period–I just see the need for us approving the event.”
The Mayor was a little more conservative, but did not suggest whether he would vote yes or no given the chance. “Regardless of whether or not we do a number, I would like to see Railroad Square exempted from that [number],” he said.
Councilman Chopper Davis gave a presentation on the ordinance and, in summary, suggested that New Port Richey should adopt Key West’s approach to events and alcohol–no limits. He said that there have been 15 events in Key West so far in 2014 and they all had alcohol. My personal interpretation of his presentation was that alcohol should not be a big deal for events. Here’s a snippet of what he said during the presentation:
There’s a lot of different things but it just happens that there is alcohol available at the event. We have a new park design and we don’t know where that’s going to take us down to road. I don’t think there should be any number [to limit permits]. Any number at all.
Councilman Davis also took the most laissez-fair position of the night, saying, “If it’s not [an event] blocking off Grand, if it’s not blocking off Main, I’m all for it,” he said. Mr. Davis is the former owner of a bar in New Port Richey.
Mr. Davis says alcohol in public isn’t a big deal, but I would like to point out anecdotally that West Pasco seems to have a history of alcoholism even if it’s not “that bad.” Just last year Port Richey’s City Manager, Tom O’Neill, was arrested with a BAC of 0.367 (more than four times the legal limit of 0.08) by New Port Richey police, asleep in his car on Astor Drive (wearing a shirt from Gill Dawg–a local bar). O’Neill was also previously arrested in 1996 for a DUI. According to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, West Pasco (specifically southwestern Pasco, including New Port Richey) has a higher rate of both fatal accidents and driver impaired accidents than the rest of Pasco County, even considering population density. Data available for total arrests by County from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement does show correlation in arrests with only 31 DUI arrests in New Port Richey for 2013 and 16 for Port Richey. Pasco as a whole had 1,198 DUI arrests, lower per population than most other counties. I would suggest that those numbers are low either due to under-reporting or low enforcement efforts. Even if it’s not as pervasive as it looks, it certainly seems that some of the area’s top leaders think it’s okay to drink to excess–unless they get caught driving. Hardly the example we should be setting or condoning.
Again, not necessarily a description of our population as a whole–but I’m not convinced by “dire economic times” that we should encourage a culture of drinking by allowing an unlimited number of events serving alcohol on public property. I think many would agree that part of New Port Richey’s overall image problem is the number of bars downtown. Not that everyone partaking from those establishments is an alcoholic, but common sense says we have an affinity for alcohol in our local culture. In 2008 a man shot and killed downtown during Chasco Fiesta outside of a bar. Further, why can’t those private bars or other private properties host these events? Nothing is to stop the events from using public property but only serving alcohol on private property.
Most telling about this situation is the council’s willingness to first break their own law, then change the law to suit their needs–or rather the needs of non-profits who want to sell booze for profit–while ignoring a societal problem that we’ve been dealing with since automobiles hit the streets. That’s scary.
by Jon Tietz