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Gainesville City Commission votes to begin process of reinstating open container ordinance

Commissioner Reina Saco introduces the reinstatement of the open container ordinance at the May 5 meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

This is part 2 of the Gainesville City Commission’s May 5 discussion on policing. Part 1 can be read here.

Commissioner Reina Saco brought forward an agenda item to reconsider last year’s repeal of the City’s open container ordinance. At that meeting, Gainesville Police Department (GPD) had requested adopting a revised noise ordinance; they also made that request at the May 5 meeting. Instead, at the July 19, 2021, meeting, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos made a motion to repeal the existing ordinance that prohibited open containers of alcohol on public property and directed the City Manager to work on the recommendations from GPD. The motion passed 4-3, with Hayes-Santos, Saco, Mayor Lauren Poe, and Commissioner Harvey Ward voting to repeal the ordinance. 

On May 5, Saco said she wanted to have the conversation again because of what she has seen in the past year or so. She said that open container laws “have real harm to our homeless community… That said, our policy needs adjustment… We tried to do something great, but now it’s being abused… not from people in the community, but people coming in.” She said that when she has gone out to look at the situation downtown in the middle of the night, she saw “alcohol everywhere, I don’t think I saw an empty hand… what I saw as the crowd starting clearing was bottles smashed everywhere… trash and broken glass everywhere.” 

She suggested reinstating the open container ordinance across the city through the end of the year, when GPD hopes to have 11-12 more officers available: “approximately eight months, to get more cadets, to get more people, to give [GPD] a breather… The companion piece to that repeal is we have, call it a permit, call it an application process, a system where if a block does want this amenity of open container, if they do want it in front of their business, that you can apply to have it, with the approval of other neighbors within so many feet… I don’t want to hurt businesses who have been doing everything right because people who don’t live here have come to take advantage of something we intended to be good.” In the meantime, she wants to have a “much deeper conversation” about what to do long-term: “I don’t think either end of this pendulum is the answer.”

“Everyone who has grown up in Gainesville knows that this has been a long issue. We have to continue, day-to-day, pushing the right thing to do and stop young people from destroying their lives with alcohol, it’s as simple as that.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Commissioner David Arreola said he wanted to allow open containers except in parking lots and parking garages, along with implementing better security at the southwest parking garage. “We have a lot of educating to do in this community… I think we should all take a deep breath when we start to attribute root causes. This is a long, long issue in this community. Everyone who has grown up in Gainesville knows that this has been a long issue. We have to continue, day-to-day, pushing the right thing to do and stop young people from destroying their lives with alcohol, it’s as simple as that.”

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Ward reminded the commission that any changes will require two more meetings. Once they have an ordinance in front of them, it will require first and second readings before taking effect. He made a motion that they direct the Interim City Attorney and Interim City Manager to bring back an ordinance that reinstates open container, “with the intent that we rethink that in January of 2023, and that they bring back an ordinance that will allow us to permit use of open container for businesses, specifically along SW 1st Avenue, but potentially replicable to other parts of the community, such as it is possible.”

“[T]hese laws were put into place in the past, and they’ve been subjectively done in the past…. enforced based on income and enforced based on color of someone’s skin in the past.” – Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos

Hayes-Santos said that “instead of taking drastic measures and changing things, it’s not good for laws to change all the time.” He said the roving parties are often landing in private parking lots that are not covered by open container laws, anyway. He said those issues could be addressed by business owners trespassing people and enforcing the existing noise ordinance. He also wanted the equity office to “look at this through an equity lens because these laws were put into place in the past, and they’ve been subjectively done in the past…. enforced based on income and enforced based on color of someone’s skin in the past.” He also wanted more data and “strongly disagree[d] with doing a block-by-block permitting. That will just create a mess.”

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said she was in favor of reinstating the open container ordinance, “period. Then I definitely support the motion from Commissioner Arreola on banning alcohol in the City’s parking garages, I think we need to do that tomorrow.”

“As for changing law, ideally you get it right the first time. We don’t always. The rental permit process, we did not get right the first time, and we came back with a small overhaul on how to make it work because practically, on the ground, after a year of trying, it did not work right, and this is no different.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Saco said she wouldn’t vote to reinstate the open container ordinance without the second part of asking staff to bring back a process for “businesses that want to keep it and want to take responsibility and liability for what is happening… I think you need both because GPD shouldn’t be punished, and neither should these businesses… As for changing law, ideally you get it right the first time. We don’t always. The rental permit process, we did not get right the first time, and we came back with a small overhaul on how to make it work because practically, on the ground, after a year of trying, it did not work right, and this is no different.”

“I want us to settle at a happy medium where we address the issues and not signal confusion to the whole city about where the status of the open container law will be for the next year… I don’t really see the logic here.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Arreola said he disagreed with the strategy of the motion: “Let’s be clear about the real reason why the ordinance was repealed in the first place. It’s because we were in quarantine, we were limiting business actions indoors, that’s why we lifted the ordinance. So now we are talking about flipping and reinstating this… basically kicking it to the next commission and mayor, until January of ’23, and we don’t know where that leads us… Now we’re going to be issuing confusion to our citizens about the rule of law, especially if we go the path of special districts and only certain areas… I want us to settle at a happy medium where we address the issues and not signal confusion to the whole city about where the status of the open container law will be for the next year… I don’t really see the logic here.” He asked whether they city commission could regulate possession of alcohol in parking lots, and the City Attorney said, “I think we could do that.”

“At the end of the day, we made a decision that has had a huge impact, that I don’t think anybody up here really understood, and I believe we do need to take a step back.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said, “At the end of the day, we made a decision that has had a huge impact, that I don’t think anybody up here really understood, and I believe we do need to take a step back.” She said she hadn’t made a decision about permits for specific businesses, “but I certainly will support reinstating the ordinance.”

Interim Police Chief Lonnie Scott, Sr., pointed out that open container violations typically result in a fine, not an arrest: “We don’t arrest people, typically, on a first charge unless they’re combative or resisting.” He also said that if the public has access to a parking lot, it’s deemed “quasi-public,” so GPD could take enforcement actions in privately-owned parking lots. 

“I don’t want to sacrifice economic development to save GPD. I don’t want to sacrifice GPD to save economic development.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Saco said, “I am trying to do good without hurting people who haven’t done any wrong, and I don’t want to sacrifice economic development to save GPD. I don’t want to sacrifice GPD to save economic development.” She said she wanted staff to figure out the open container permit process “because up here, we are not going to figure out those details… I’m going to restate it: I need both of them, or I’m not voting for the first.”

Poe asked if the maker and seconder of the motion would agree with modifying the motion to say, “Bring back a process that will allow for permitting of businesses for an allowed open container in locations around the city.” Both agreed.

“I have always thought, and my mind has not been changed, that at best it’s a dumb law and at worse, a highly discriminatory law. The fact that I can drink a beer in my driveway, but I step out onto my road and I’m a criminal, is absurd.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Poe said he would not be voting to reinstate the open container ordinance: “I have always thought, and my mind has not been changed, that at best it’s a dumb law and at worse, a highly discriminatory law. The fact that I can drink a beer in my driveway, but I step out onto my road and I’m a criminal, is absurd… I understand there’s a problem… This, to me, will not solve it.”

The commission voted first on the request that staff come back with a permitting procedure for businesses to have open containers outside their locations. That passed 4-3, with Hayes-Santos, Arreola, and Chestnut in dissent.

The vote to reinstate the open container law passed 4-3, with Poe, Hayes-Santos, and Arreola in dissent.

Hayes-Santos asked again to have the equity office look at the open container law, including “the reasons for the ordinances in the past and who the ordinance would affect if reinstated, who it’s being targeted towards. Secondly, that the City Manager and staff bring back a plan on how to address lighting, cameras, and other security issues in the garage and the budget for that, and also not to allow drinking in the garage.”

Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry asked whether her staff could address that before the vote (this press release was issued during the meeting). Malisa McCreedy said the City has already issued a purchase order to get the lighting changed, and that should be done in the next couple of months. Security cameras will also be installed in the next couple of months. Effective May 5, the garage is closed between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., Thursday-Sunday nights. Four security guards will be in the garage, two at the exits to allow permanent customers to enter, and two patrolling. 

Hayes-Santos’ motion passed unanimously.

Two more votes in future meetings will be required to actually reinstate the ordinance.

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