City commission open container discussion ends in stalemate

City Commission Ed Book proposes the final motion in the discussion

BY JARRED SPANOS, Alachua Chronicle Correspondent

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gainesville City Commission voted against changing their open container law, which currently prohibits alcohol in open containers in public areas between 2:30 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.; the staff recommendation would have prohibited open containers between 11:30 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. A City ordinance previously prohibited open containers in public until 2020, when the city commission repealed that ordinance to make it easier for businesses to serve customers outdoors during the COVID-19 business capacity restrictions. They put the ordinance back in place in 2021, but the current ordinance only restricts open containers after 2:30 a.m.

Andrew Persons, a Special Advisor to the City Manager, told the commission, “Our recommendation as staff is to roll the time back to 11:30 p.m., when the City parks close, in an attempt to stop gatherings in parking lots.” 

Commissioner Reina Saco said, “I think timing to our park closure still allows most of our businesses who have outdoor seating…[to] serve alcohol.”

Commissioner Ed Book mentioned that open containers had previously been decriminalized, and the ordinance is typically enforced with a civil citation, which Book said is like a traffic ticket. To get a better understanding, he wanted to hear from Gainesville Police Chief Lonnie Scott.

Scott said he has an issue with alcohol in cars, and he agreed with Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut that he would prefer no alcohol on the street, but he said he would work with whatever law the commission gives him. Scott told the commission that police have had challenges with gatherings in parking lots until the late hours of the night, and there are times when it is difficult to guide them out. For this reason, Scott would like to roll the ordinance back to where it was pre-pandemic, which was a complete prohibition on open containers.

Scott said, “For us, it just doesn’t seem to be a smart thing to mix people in cars, sitting in parking lots, and sitting on the side of a roadway with alcohol.” There are sometimes guns in people’s cars, according to Scott, and when people drink, they do not always use their best judgment. Saco pointed out that it is currently illegal to drink in City-owned parking lots and parking garages.

Saco wanted to ban drinking in all parking garages and parking lots, but when the City Attorney said, “That sounds like a zoning change you are talking about,” Saco said, “Never mind.”

Book responded by emphasizing the recently-declared public health crisis: gun violence. He said he would support going back to the pre-pandemic open container prohibition because “it’s a public safety issue.”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker also supported rolling the ordinance back to the way things were pre-pandemic. She said, “Dire issues related to gun violence are not getting better.” Since the commission changed the law during the pandemic to accommodate and stimulate business, Duncan-Walker asked for information about the economic impact and whether the repeal of the ordinance helped businesses. 

Persons responded, “Most of the feedback we received was in favor of keeping the [current] ordinance.” He said that after speaking with a couple of local businesses, staff found that most were not happy about a potential rollback. However, he said, reports from Gainesville Police Department (GPD) having problems with large gatherings could be a reason to make the change.

Book said, “There would be an opportunity for us in one, two, or three years to make downtown a destination point. The city is home to a couple of destination points, but they are all outside of our city limits, and the city can do better.” He said that the current open container ordinance “doesn’t help a vibrant downtown; it makes it less safe.”

Book talked about entertainment districts in cities like Austin, Texas; Burlington, Vermont; and Church Street Station, Orlando that all have confined areas where people can drink outdoors. He said these are safer areas for citizens.

Saco addressed the drunk driver concern, stating that many people feel it is unfair to be punished for such a small group’s behaviors. Saco said, “Folks drinking and driving didn’t start when we allowed the open container. People started drinking and driving since we had cars.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said, “The problem is [that] there are people getting together in these open-air areas, and GPD is essential playing that role of the person overseeing these things.”

During public comment, Debbie Martinez said, “Scaling back the hours is not the problem. The problem is the ordinance itself.” She advocated for repealing and replacing it back to the pre-pandemic ordinance that prohibited open containers in public areas. She said, “Florida is becoming the Wild West, with people in the streets walking around with guns.”

Armando Grundy-Gomes said, “This open container ordinance increased crime.” He also said the police have a hard time dealing with all of these problems.

Multiple motions fail

Saco made a motion to approve the staff recommendation to change the ordinance to prohibit open containers starting at 11:30 p.m. and also ask staff to review the potential for an entertainment zone and bring that information back to a General Policy Committee meeting. The motion failed, 3-4, with Saco, Eastman, and Mayor Harvey Ward supporting the motion. 

“I do not want to live in a city, in a state, where my neighbor can carry a concealed weapon anywhere they go, but I cannot carry a beer across the street from my home, out to the main street, and back, perhaps even on a phone call.” – Commissioner Casey Willits

Book made a motion to repeal the current ordinance and direct staff to create an ordinance that is consistent with the ordinance that was in effect in 2019. Willits opposed the motion because “I do not want to live in a city, in a state, where my neighbor can carry a concealed weapon anywhere they go, but I cannot carry a beer across the street from my home, out to the main street, and back, perhaps even on a phone call.” He said he didn’t want to live in a city where he couldn’t have a beer at an event that didn’t have a permit or couldn’t have a bottle of wine at a picnic in a park. He continued, “I’m definitely opposed to this motion on a basic freedom of being able to drink a beverage that we’ve been drinking for 10,000 years, that many people drink responsibly.” He said it’s unhealthy for communities to make alcohol a taboo subject and limit it to bars and homes.

That motion also failed 3-4, with Book, Chestnut, and Duncan-Walker in favor.

Ward reminded the commission that “this is not something where the world stops moving if we don’t pass something today.” Book suggested moving on to the next agenda item but said it would be good to gather additional data that would help them “make specific entertainment areas safe.” He thought it should come before the Public Safety Committee first, and he made a motion to ask staff to bring back information about designating safe entertainment areas from a zoning perspective. He said the zoning wouldn’t deal with alcohol specifically but more about where and how people can safely gather. Willits seconded the motion.

Saco said the Public Safety Committee has already scheduled the topics for the next three months of meetings, so it would be at least four months before they could discuss the issue; she said that scaling back the time to 11:30 p.m. would provide relief for police until the Public Safety Committee can take up the topic. She said, “Doing nothing is not the answer.” She re-offered her previous motion of scaling back to 11:30.

Ward said the topic could be discussed sooner if it went to the General Policy Committee (GPC) instead of the Public Safety Committee. Eastman agreed that GPC would be more appropriate and more timely because GPD is worried about upcoming events like Peaceful Sundays and football season. Willits asked if Book would change his motion to bring back the information to GPC, and Book rescinded his motion and made a new motion to study land use and zoning and bring that back to GPC and direct staff to draft an ordinance to roll back to the 2019 open container ordinance in the meantime. Chestnut seconded the motion. 

Ward split the motion. The vote to bring back information about entertainment districts passed unanimously, and the part about rolling back the ordinance failed 3-4, with Book, Duncan-Walker, and Chestnut in favor. The ordinance remained unchanged at the end of the agenda item.

  • It seems like the city is on a mission to encourage the consumption of alcohol. Most cities don’t allow open containers, and that’s just the way it is, like it always was here. Alcohol is inherently unsafe and unhealthy, and look at all the crime we have now. It’s not like encouraging exercise or healthy eating.

  • Chaos Theory. It’s what Democrats, especially progressive liberals, embrace but ignore the repercussions. They choose to put the mechanisms in play but then close their eyes to the results of their actions, (or inactions). The City Commission is a clear example.

    Not everyone is a happy drunk, you would think they would have seen that by now. If it shows up on Ward’s front porch, he’ll be singing a different tune.

    • Was the cause of Mayor Lowe’s death ever announced? Willits could be like him after a few more years of boozing it up, starting with running his car off the road into a tree on the way home from the bar. Endorsing alcohol consumption is probably not a good idea. I guess alcohol fuels vagrancy, and we like vagrants here.

  • Spineless, Mindless, Mayor of the financially challenged Gainesville was the deciding vote to maintain an increase crimes against the public . Along with the masked bandits that charade as commissioner’s they welcome shootings into our community. They are still clueless that the State of Florida is watching their every single vote and meeting. These clowns will be gone by July 4th . Independence Day!!
    Why do they continue down this path and downward spiral?

  • Seems a no brainer: to help keep downtown restaurants in business, only allow open container on outside cafe style seating areas. Nowhere else.

    • Definitely a no brainer seeing as how those who still advocate for open container lack having one.

    • But the downtowns in Orlando or Burlington are much, much bigger and actually have several restaurants and bars and aren’t overrun with with bums. They have areas they can actually cordon off for paying customers for dining and enjoying drinks. Gainesville has hardly a downtown to speak of and dining anywhere outdoors is pretty much unenjoyable because of ever present vagrants panhandling. Gainesville may have big debt but it’s not a big city by any means. These clueless boobs in office need to get lost.

      • That’s false. My wife and I dined outside at Harry’s a couple of evenings ago, and I go there and Loosey’s semi-regularly. Downtown is not full of homeless people, and that includes Bo Diddley Plaza. It was in the past, but those who remain are few and centered on the St Francis House on Main and 4th Ave. North and South of there are not and are pleasant and safe environments with plenty of visitors. Depot Park is a wild success and the old Baird Center – now renamed – is a great destination as well for live music and several restaurants.

        By the way, I don’t agree with open container law as it presently exists.

        • Wrong. There’s 3 people on the corners of University and Main panhandling every day. There’s a homeless guy who has taken up residence in the foyer of a business right next to Pop-a-Top. Some have decided to call home on many occasions the western & southern entrances of the county administration building. Some sit across from Dragonfly. I could venture out if you like, the homeless “limits” may actually have more of a footprint than the actual city limits of Gainesville.

          The only place they don’t seem to congregate is City Hall. Seems the people who turned the welcome sign on have their private security preventing that.

          • There are people at the intersection of virtually every major street in the city and county and downtown is not any different. As a customer at several downtown restaurants and one who traverses the area getting there, homeless people exist – as they do most places – but not in numbers like they used to or, and as you just described, mostly by them selves. That’s a fact.

        • BS—-There’s a filthy bum in the Wells Fargo parking lot for the past 2 months….I was going to stop banking there if they didn’t provide a safe environment…it was bad…I think the police made him leave this weekend…he set up a new camp a block away and they called the police and had him move on…I heard he was yelling and cussing when having to move-on. I had vagrants set up on my porch in midtown and break into the building and cause $1000 damage…the SAO dropped the charges on him and he’s in jail for something else now with a big bond…

        • You prove my point about limiting hours and locations to restaurants, bars with outside seating. They close those places earlier than the all night, streetside areas the city commission had delusions of NOLA here. We should not compete with Mardi Gras 24/7/365.

      • We have Celebration Pointe for that. Not good for downtown. Only allow for bars and restaurants.

    • How dare you introduce logic into your excellent solution. Unfortunately the city commissioners won’t understand it because it actually makes sense. That group only can make illogical decisions.

  • Willitts: I don’t want to live in a city where a vagrant bum sleeps or breaks into my property and pisses everywhere and panhandles in street medians. The concealed weapons holder has a permit. Why are you giving vagrants a permit to crap up our city? I don’t leave my bullet casings in the street like bums leave their trash and beer cans & bottles…
    I don’t wave my gun around like a drunk with an open beer bottle.

  • That face diaper is a political statement….makes me think the Vax
    Don’t work and don’t get the boosters… he’s probably for Vax passport in order to engage in commerce…he kind looks like an evil
    Goblin, don’t he? I think the face diaper is the flag for fascist Marxist one world government commies.

    • Willits wears the face mask cause he’s got sh!t for brains and needs the diaper to hold it all in.

      • I think masks are like diapers in their minds, and carrying a beer around everywhere is a holdover from his baby bottle days. But I’m not a mental health professional.

        • You’re wrong. Masks and the vaccines work, and that’s why anti-vaxxers led hospitalizations and deaths in both red and blue states. Your mask study?

          Forbes – ” in a statement issued on March 10 by the Cochrane Library, Karla Soares-Weiser, MD, PhD, MSc, Editor-in-Chief of the Cochrane Library, emphasized, “Many commentators have claimed that a recently-updated Cochrane Review shows that ‘masks don’t work,’ which is an inaccurate and misleading interpretation….A number of scientists and public health experts have already emphasized various key flaws in the systematic review conducted by Jefferson and his team. ”

          • Ha! Tell that to Dr. Lapadi! there’s all kinds of VAERS data that say the Vax is killing people.

          • Ladapo is a heart doc with no experience in epidemiology but who favored the ridiculous and deadly ideas DeSantis likes. He belongs to the same group of quacks as the woman doc who said “demon sperm” was causing illness, and appeared in public with her. His recent “study” was shot down in detailed responses by a team of UF doctors on a committee intended to curb mistakes by it’s faculty as well as the CDC. He and DeSantis should be arrested for murder.

          • The onus is on people to prove that masks are effective in stopping Covid; not trying to somehow prove that they “aren’t not effective,” whatever that means. And yes, deaths across the board are way up in the vaccinated.

          • Yes, the vaccines are less effective against the most recent strains, but the unvaccinated are still much more likely to croak. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/72/wr/mm7206a3.htm

            Masks have been proven in numerous studies to help prevent the spread of Covid. Physically, i.e. in the lab, the correct masks – N95s – are of the correct size to catch the particles which carry covid, so of course they work. Studies show lessened infection across populations, though the number of variables in these results studies make the data much less clear. Use your head!

          • We’re talking about Willits and his little polyester or cotton mask. It is doing nothing except making it more difficult for him to participate in the meetings and making not only him but the whole city of Gainesville look foolish. Correct protocol calls for changing to a new mask at least once every two hours if you are wearing a correctly-fitted N95 mask (and he’s not). Public health professionals agree that masks cause more problems than the very marginal benefit they might provide. You could live like the boy in the bubble, but it’s probably not the best choice for most normal folks. Your concerns about masks seem misguided given the obesity of some of the commissioners. Fat people and diabetics are most susceptible, which would account for your death statistics if you knew how to interpret them and include factors like race and obesity/diabetes. Clearly the “vaccines” are causing a wide array of health problems including deaths. The city made all employees including GRU get them, of course. And they fired Bielarski for standing up for his employees.

          • Masks also reduce brain oxygen, the real reason Dems want voters using them.

          • Masks only work if you change and clean them frequently. Something 99% of Dem voters don’t do.

  • We’re doomed. These guys are in a stalemate on open container? They will never make the cuts to lower the city’s debt because of GRU….Governor Desantis, if you are reading this…come in like a SWAT team and trespass all the GNV CC from city hall except Ed Book and appoint new commissioners and create a utility authority for GRU..we can’t wait until October.

    • Gee, I was hoping Biden would swoop in and remove DeSantis for attempting a coup in Florida, that includes taking over local officials and private businesses, while calling it “freedom”. But then I remembered we don’t do that in America, though maybe in Florida.

      • The economy and the dollar have been ruined by Biden and democrat spending. Dem leadership here has been a disaster & ruined our utility & saddled us with bankrupting debt… the State has no choice but to come in & fix things …these idiots are stalemated and can’t even agree about open containers. Maybe Desantis needs to come in and decide the issue for them.

      • Have to seen the financial and social condition of Blue states and cities, lately? Especially after their Covid dictates went bust?

  • Can you smell what the “idiots” are cooking? Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy couldn’t have done this better! This is “Who’s On First” slapstick!

    Unfortunately, this is the peoples business and these failed peoples representatives have failed at everything they have tried so far this year! Sadly, it is on purpose and they are simply continuing the Democratic model of “all talk and no action!” They will not accomplish a thing!

    People need to wake up and demand this Mayor and CC (minus Book) resign! Demand they quit screwing the good people of the city with their inaction and double talk!

    • Most of city comm. enter office for future job networking stepping stone, golden parachutes after term limits, and not to solve problems.

  • The primary responsibility of elected city commissioners is public safety.

    That is why the most of the money collected from taxpayers is allocated to public safety.

    Any action that undermines public safety is a violation of the primary responsibility of an incumbent commissioner.

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