HomeLocal governmentGainesville moves forward with full reinstatement of open container ordinance, coupled with entertainment district ordinance
Gainesville moves forward with full reinstatement of open container ordinance, coupled with entertainment district ordinance
August 21, 2023
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – During the afternoon session of their August 17 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission voted 4-3 to move forward with a full reinstatement of their previous open container ordinance, coupled with an entertainment district ordinance. Mayor Harvey Ward was the reluctant swing vote and insisted that the commission direct staff to bring back the entertainment district ordinance before he would be willing to vote on rolling back the current open container ordinance.
“Strongly held positions” on open containers
Ward introduced the issue by acknowledging that there are “strongly held positions” on both sides of the issue; he said the city commission “needs to make some decisions to give the police some tools–the level of tool that we address today remains to be seen… I hope that we can at the very least make sure that when we walk out of this room, there is a path to being able to regulate city parking lots… and not let drinking go on in city parking lots because that does seem to be where some of the problem is.”
Acting Director for Sustainable Development Forrest Eddleton said the previous open container ordinance, which prohibited open alcoholic containers in public areas at all times, was temporarily suspended during COVID to allow businesses to serve alcohol outdoors; the current version of the ordinance restricts open containers only after 2:30 a.m., and a March 2023 discussion about changing that ended in a stalemate.
“We cannot afford to compromise”
Staff recommended that the commission vote on the first reading of a draft ordinance that would prohibit alcohol in open containers after 11:30 p.m. on most nights and earlier on Sunday nights.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut cited statistics showing an association between alcohol use and violence, adding, “I urge all commissioners to join me today in taking bold action to address alcohol and gun violence in our community–not through a compromise. We cannot afford to compromise… We must be very clear in the actions we want to take.” She said she hoped they would direct the attorney to prepare an ordinance to prohibit open containers.
Commissioner Bryan Eastman said they were not discussing whether alcohol should be sold but whether you can “sip [your drink] as you go between bars or could you stroll through your neighborhood and drink.” He said the focus should be on “how do we stop these roving parties… My understanding is these parties get together, there’s five or six people out on the street, they start growing… By the time they’re large, they’re very difficult to kind of get a hold of… I don’t see how rolling this back to 11:30 stops that.” He said he wanted to enable some outside drinking downtown and ensure that the police have tools to “bust up large outside parties… but I don’t for the life of me see how this particular compromise puts those together.”
Gainesville Police Department Chief Lonnie Scott said his primary concern is staffing because it’s difficult to have a lot of officers downtown when the bars close at 2 a.m. and also deal with roving parties with thousands of people.
“Pulling the rug out from under some of our downtown business owners”
Eastman said the commission voted on March 2 to ask staff to come back with plans for entertainment districts, and City Manager Cynthia Curry said that is still in the policy process. Eastman said he would feel “much more comfortable” rolling back the time, even to something before 11:30 p.m., if they had a downtown entertainment district: “But the fact that we don’t have that before us, I feel like we’re kind of pulling the rug out from under some of our downtown business owners that have invested so much in the downtown and do like the policy as it is.”
Commissioner Ed Book said the City needs a range of tools to address the issues, “none of which, including open container, will solve our problem, but all of which will address pieces of the problem.” He didn’t think 11:30 p.m. made sense as a cut-off time because, for example, football games will lead to open containers “all over our city and our streets and our parking lots and our businesses, and those will be well before the 11:30 p.m. hour.”
Commissioner Casey Willits wanted to know whether there is any data connecting gun violence and open containers “because I don’t think it’s fair to use that as a reason if our own data doesn’t support that.”
Violence data on upward trend since 2020
Chief Scott said that locally, the number of shots fired and persons shot were trending down before 2020, but the trend has been significantly higher since 2020 and the COVID restrictions. He said it’s difficult to get national data because the reporting system changed in 2021, so no single source has nationwide data. He continued, “We just cannot get reliable information. There’s nothing out there… But this, to us, points out there is a correlation, we believe, between the abuse of alcohol and the gun violence that we’ve been experiencing.”
Chief Scott said the police have other tools for managing intoxicated individuals, but, as one example, there is a higher standard for making contact with someone who may be underage and drinking: “We have to have some reasonable belief that that person is underage.” He said there’s a lower standard for making contact with someone holding an open container. He added that when people drink in cars and have a gun right next to them, a verbal argument can quickly turn into a gunfight.
Willits said he appreciated “the idea that we need to do something and give GPD another tool… The parking lots, I 100% support that–close to cars, that’s where the parties are happening.” He said anyone who wants to have a party in a parking lot should get a special event permit, and he said he could support an 11:30 p.m. cut-off.
“I have to choose safety”
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she wanted to have a conversation about an entertainment district in the fall, but right now, “I have to choose safety,… making sure that we use everything that we have to address the issue of gun violence.” She favored reverting to the complete prohibition on open containers that was in place before 2020.
Mayor Harvey Ward said gun violence is rising nationally, “and the open container ordinance didn’t change things nationally… We’re not talking about the sale or availability of alcohol here… We’re talking about–is it legal or not legal to walk out of a house or out of a bar onto the sidewalk–and all of a sudden the act of drinking alcohol from an open container becomes illegal. That didn’t make a lot of sense to me in 2020; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me now.”
“As long as Florida wants to arm everybody, gun violence is gonna go up in Florida”
Ward said he wanted to give GPD extra tools, “but we get off track when we talk about… whether or not alcohol and guns don’t mix… There’s no question about that. The question is, does it get worse if you allow people to walk outside… I don’t think we’re going to impact gun violence by doing this… I talked this morning about some of the tools that I think will help impact it in this community. The thing we haven’t talked about yet, because we can’t do anything about it, is that as long as Florida wants to arm everybody, gun violence is gonna go up in Florida. We can’t do anything about that. But darned if I’m going to have a discussion about gun violence without saying that.”
Ward said it was “extremely important” to him to find a way to build “not just an entertainment district but the opportunity for a replicable entertainment district that can happen in any neighborhood, as long as it meets certain guidelines… But I’m not gonna let that stand in the way of restricting some hours today.”
“You cannot go to Ocala downtown and bring a cooler and sit out and have a party”
State Attorney Brian Kramer told the commission that law enforcement doesn’t have many good tools to address the issue of roving parties; he said his office has closed its parking lot to anybody except police officers on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights “because of the amount of violent crime… But what has changed was the ability to have an open container of alcohol in a downtown parking lot, and that did change in the time frames that you have been examining closely… 2020, 2021, 2022. That did change.”
Kramer added that many people who get arrested in connection with the roving parties are local residents, “but what we saw when this changed was that Gainesville became a regional draw. Because you cannot go to Ocala downtown and bring a cooler and sit out and have a party. You can’t do that in Putnam County. You can’t do that in Levy County. You can’t do that in Lake City. But you can do it in Gainesville… Now we are seeing more people who are on our probable cause affidavits that are not residents.”
Motion to roll back the ordinance to full prohibition on open containers
After public comment, Chestnut made a motion to direct the City Attorney to prepare an ordinance “in form and principle prior to the COVID pandemic, when the City of Gainesville prohibited the possession and consumption of open containers within the city through an open container ordinance.”
City Attorney Daniel Nee asked for confirmation that the intent of her motion was to revert the ordinances back to where they were prior to August 2021; after some discussion, the group agreed that it would revert back to the ordinance in place in 2019.
Book said other steps will be coming: “At least three other ordinances, three other tools that we have available to us that the City Manager has directed a multi-departmental group to study… to deal with pieces of the problem. And this deals with a piece of the problem. I’m in favor of it.”
“I really don’t like being a swing vote, but here I am yet again”
Ward said Gainesville had a roving party issue before 2020: “There are many things here that are not in question at all, including the fact that these roving parties are a serious problem. They’re also a national problem.” He said he wished they could also vote on a “replicable entertainment district” ordinance, but he hoped they would have one soon. He continued, “I want to give tools to GPD to work with, but it makes me sad that we’re telling people we can’t trust them to walk across the street with an open bottle of beer, and I think we can trust nearly everybody to do that… I really don’t like being a swing vote, but here I am yet again.”
Curry said she had put together a group of staff to talk about an entertainment district, but “we did not conclude that that was the best option to proceed at the time because we couldn’t reach consensus about how to make it make sense across Gainesville, not just downtown. And so that discussion led us to the compromise that we have here.”
Curry said she believed the police department supported a full repeal of the current open container ordinance, back to a full prohibition on open containers. She said staff recommended the proposed draft ordinance as a compromise because they hadn’t had time to fully develop the entertainment district idea, “so this is the best that we as staff could offer today, in light of the resolution that declares this a public health crisis, and the shootings just seem to continue.”
Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he supported asking staff to come back with a full repeal of the existing limited open container ordinance but said he would like to see an entertainment district and that it is necessary to get input from the people who are investing in downtown. Eastman said the main problems right now seem to be police staffing issues at 2 a.m. and roving parties, and he didn’t favor using “a big sledgehammer to solve the problem… Instead of taking the scalpel approach to it, we’re going to do full sledgehammer in this direction or full sledgehammer in that direction.”
“I don’t see any reason why people need to be drinking outside when the sun’s down”
Eastman said he preferred combining an entertainment district with a prohibition on open containers that starts at sundown or 8 p.m.: “I don’t see any reason why people need to be drinking outside when the sun’s down unless they’re downtown or in a bar or at someone’s house.” He also supported allowing open containers at permitted special events.
Willits said he could support the draft ordinance that rolled the start time for open container prohibition to 11:30 p.m., but he objected to different hours on Sundays because it’s a “throwback to blue laws.” After Nee said the City would need to re-advertise the first reading of the ordinance if they made that change, Willits said he could support staff’s recommendation even though he didn’t think it would make much of a difference. However, he said he could not support rolling the ordinance back to the 2019 ordinance.
Chestnut asked Ward to vote for the full repeal back to the 2019 version, saying, “This is about safety. This is about providing equitable – you like that? – equitable services to all our citizens. The rest of our citizens are not being protected because we’re all downtown, trying to manage alcohol. I urge you, I beseech you, Mr. Mayor, to join us in repealing this and going back to the original ordinance.”
“[Open containers don’t] make a community safer, [don’t] make it more vibrant, and [don’t] make it more welcoming”
Book said, “There’s a good reason that peer cities and cities like us, and basically most cities in general, don’t have the open container the way that we have right now… It doesn’t make a community safer, it doesn’t make it more vibrant, and it doesn’t make it more welcoming… Does allowing open container accessibility make our community safer? And if the answer is no, then that’s where I lie as my decision point.”
Celebration Pointe allows open containers
Ward pointed out that no matter what they decide, Celebration Pointe “is going to remain open-container-friendly, and it directly competes with downtown.” He acknowledged that Celebration Pointe does “all kinds of other stuff out there” like prohibiting minors from going to the movies at night without a parent.
Ward said that the next opportunity to consider the ordinance would be September 7, but they already have “a couple of things on there that are pretty challenging,” so he suggested a Special Meeting for the time slot that is currently set for the General Policy Committee meeting on September 14, “particularly if we can get back a temporary entertainment district ordinance the same day. That gives us more than a month to… publicly engage about both the concept of an entertainment district, at least a temporary one, and the full repeal of open container… I’d like to consider those together… rather than just saying, ‘If you want to drink, go out to Celebration Pointe, it’ll be fine, and don’t worry about downtown.’ I don’t want to leave downtown hanging like that.”
“I would prefer, rather than hanging it out there, that we make a decision”
Chestnut said, “Well, Mr. Mayor, I’m gonna have to pray on that one.” She said she wanted to go ahead and vote on her motion: “If we lose, we lose. But I would prefer, rather than hanging it out there, that we make a decision.” She said she was willing to add a request for an entertainment district ordinance, but she wanted the ordinances to come before the commission on September 7.
Nee said his office could have an ordinance to revert the open container ordinance to the 2019 version by then, but an entertainment district ordinance would take more time: “I’m not confident we’re gonna get you a product you’re gonna be satisfied with within one week,” which would be required to advertise the ordinance for September 7.
Curry said they could “bring something back… Will it be as thorough as it should be? Probably not, because we need more time.” She said her office would miss the deadlines for submitting items to the agenda office, “but that’s not new, [Interim City Clerk] Kristen [Bryant].”
Eastman said they didn’t need to “rush forward” and that he would prefer to vote on Chestnut’s motion and then “move forward with something that I think would… balance this out a little bit better than what I’m seeing before us today.”
“Mr. Mayor, you are the swing vote, my dear”
Chestnut again asked for a vote on her motion: “Mr. Mayor, you are the swing vote, my dear.” Ward responded, “I’m trying to get you to help me vote for your motion.” She asked him to repeat his proposition.
Ward said he wanted an extra week for staff to be able to bring back a better entertainment district ordinance: “I can vote for your motion, but I would really like it to come back on the 14th… not to come back with, not as part of the same package, but the same day as an entertainment district… a separate vote.”
Nee said, “The question I have, though, is this–concurrent entertainment district you’re talking about. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if any work has been done.” Curry said she wasn’t aware of “any substantive work… I will check with staff… and if the basis is there, we will do our best.”
Staff to “do their best” to bring back entertainment district ordinance by Sept. 14
Chestnut agreed to modify her motion to state that staff will “do their best” to bring back an entertainment district ordinance on the 14th, along with the ordinance to revert the open container ordinance back to the 2019 version.
Eastman pointed out that Ward had previously said he didn’t support making it illegal to walk outside with a beer, and Ward said, “I am not happy at all with myself for getting to that point, but yes, because I do want to give a tool to the police, and we’re not going to give a tool to the police otherwise today.” Eastman said he would rather prohibit open containers after dark: “Let’s focus on nighttime drinking.”
“I don’t like the inconsistencies in my own vote here”
Ward responded, “I hear you, and I agree with you, and I wish that I were in a different place. I’m not feeling good about supporting a full repeal at all. But we have problems, and I am told that this will help fix that problem. I fully own the inconsistencies of my own [positions].”
Eastman suggested a middle ground, “like around sundown,” and Ward said that was “just moving chairs… I would like to not have an open container ordinance at all because I want to trust people to act like grown people. But I don’t think that’s where we are right now… I don’t like the inconsistencies in my own vote here.”
Commissioner Reina Saco, who was attending remotely, confirmed with Nee that if they voted on staff’s recommendation (11:30 p.m. cut-off), that would be the first reading, and “I would strongly recommend that we still move forward with that… because it is a step in the direction I think everybody here wants to go, anyway.” She didn’t favor adding the entertainment district to the staff’s workload as they are finalizing the budget and working on Inclusionary Zoning and Eastman’s zoning proposals. She said the full repeal isn’t necessary, and the entertainment district ordinance “feels rushed… And in the meantime, we give relief to GPD.” She said Chestnut’s motion would just push the issue out an extra month, “and still nothing changes on the ground.”
Ward said he didn’t disagree with her, “but I do feel like this is moving something forward, and I am leaning heavily on the idea of the entertainment district to be something that we can work with and that will help us solve a problem.”
Chestnut’s motion passed 4-3, with Eastman, Saco, and Willits in dissent.
Motion to approve staff’s recommendation
Saco made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation (approve on first reading an open container ordinance with an 11:30 p.m. cut-off), and that failed 2-5, with Saco and Willits in the affirmative.
Nee again said he didn’t know what to bring back for an entertainment district, and Ward said he would put that discussion on an agenda for this week.
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