Earlier bar, club closings are discussed in committee

Although an ordinance calling for earlier closing times at bars and clubs selling or serving alcoholic beverages received only its first reading at Monday night’s Pine Bluff City Council meeting, the proposal was a hot topic during the preceding public safety committee session.

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth is championing the cause, saying constituents often voiced their desire for such legislation during her campaign. Hollingsworth had the ordinance drafted and signed it as a co-sponsor along with Aldermen Charles Boyd, Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly. Click here to view a copy of the complete proposed ordinance as a PDF.

But during the committee round table, panel member Alderman George Stepps declared his opposition and observing Alderwoman Thelma Walker indicated her disfavor.

Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks said his department receives twice as many and sometimes even more trouble reports at the locales from 2-4 a.m. He said closing down the bars and private clubs at 1 a.m. would allow his officers to better focus on neighborhood and business patrols.

Walker countered that game rooms, which she said are open around the clock every day, are more troublesome than bars and clubs. She believes that if the latter were closed earlier, there would be a dramatic increase in the number of “house parties” disrupting neighborhoods.

“People are going to drink somewhere,” she said, “and if they can’t socialize at a bar or club, they’ll do it at a residence.”

Walker figures the number of disturbances and traffic woes might actually increase as a result of house gatherings and that police would wind up more challenged. Walker asked that she be provided with police incident reports so she can verify Hubanks’ contentions.

“I’ll go on record and say I’m against it,” Stepps said of the ordinance, which is scheduled to receive its second reading July 15.

Stepps said bars and clubs actually contribute to the welfare of some “15 to 20 officers” working part-time security posts at the sites. Stepps said the officers’ presence at the bars and clubs had resulted in some outside crimes being solved and also netted arrests that generated revenue for the city while isolating troubles to the establishments.

Hubanks didn’t seem impressed by Stepps’ figuring.

“I don’t like my officers renting out their badges to businesses making money on alcohol and entertainment,” said Hubanks, adding that if he becomes permanent chief, he’ll disallow the practice.

Hubanks, however, said Stepps raised a valid point on the bar and club gatherings possibly moving to a residential or other location after an earlier closing. The chief said officers’ handling of a “static crowd” would be “far different from a club crowd.”

During the full council meeting, three ordinances and two resolutions were unanimously adopted.

The ordinances provided for the rezoning of:

• About 1.5 acres at the southeast corner of the intersection of West Pullen and North Sycamore Streets to R-4 residential;

• About 0.397 of an acre at the southwest corner of the intersection of South Cherry Street and West 42nd Avenue to B-1 commercial; and

• About 17.6 acres at the southeast corner of the intersection of Interstate 530 and Old Warren Road to B-3 commercial.

The approved resolutions:

• Reappointed Ken Johnson to the Pine Bluff Aviation Commission; and

• Amended a current resolution to correct parcel numbers for certain properties declared to be nuisances.

An ordinance calling for the creation of a privilege fee for non-resident department heads as a condition for employment with the city was forwarded for committee considerations.

An ordinance amending current codes on outside solicitation regulations was read once and placed on the calendar.

Three proposed resolutions were pulled. They called for:

• Authorizing the mayor to negotiate a lease agreement with the management of The Pines shopping mall for space to house the police department’s patrol division (see Tuesday’s edition for a full report);

• Expressing the willingness of the city to utilize state funding to aid in West 13th Avenue improvements; and

• Authorizing and appropriating funds for renovation of the Merrill Center.

On the West 13th project legislation, Walker objected to a clause stating the city might be held accountable on reimbursing the state on engineering fees if the project was not approved. Brumett said the phrase has been used in numerous other agreements in which the city has entered.

Alderman Glen Brown disapproved of the project itself, which included installing sidewalks in a small area.

On the Merrill Center renovation, City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said that by law the enhancement project must first be approved by the parks and recreation commission.

During discussion of the matter, however, Brown repeated a previous statement, saying the center area is “a swamp.” The facility is located within Ward 1, represented by freshman Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr., who didn’t appreciate Brown’s swamp reference.

Holcomb said Brown’s description of the neighborhood was “wrong” and “an insult.”

Holcomb criticized Brown for having been “late” for preceding committee meetings and cautioned that Brown shouldn’t make such statements. “You realize (the center) is in my ward, don’t you?”

Brown started to speak at one point, but hushed when Holcomb insisted he still had the floor.

Brown has consistently opposed improvements to Merrill in favor of money for the purpose being set aside for new facilities.