Leader Blues

Saturday, April 05, 2008

TOP STORY > > Ward can’t afford suit over club

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff write

The Ward City Council voted in special session Friday afternoon to repeal its vote earlier this week to fight in circuit court a tentative private club liquor license a state board granted for a restaurant that would serve alcohol inside Ward city limits, which is in a dry county.

The city doesn’t have the money for a lengthy lawsuit that could go as far as the Arkansas Supreme Court and cost a minimum of $25,000, the council said.

Instead, the council agreed that the appeal should be filed by Citizens for Sound Government, whose top leaders include former State Rep. Randy Minton and businessman Barry Ammons. The group, which gets together as needed, first formed more than five years ago to fight a dirt race strip that was supposed to be built about three miles outside Ward.

Ammons, the apparent spokesman for the group, said after the council meeting that Citizens for Sound Government didn’t think the area needed a racy strip, and he pointed out that there isn’t one there now. Asked who could join, Ammons said any voting county resident who agrees that Lonoke County doesn’t need businesses that serve alcohol.

The Alcohol Beverage Control Board granted the private club license to Win Knight on March 31, contingent on the actual construction of the business and approval by the state Health Department. Knight did not attend the special council meeting.

Alderman Ginger Tarno said during the meeting that the ABC decision set a precedent that will affect the entire county, adding that a group that represents the county should file the appeal.

Alderman Charles Gastineau agreed. “We stood our ground,” he said. “A broader group should appeal it.”

Ammons wouldn’t reveal the names of the lawyers he and Minton have spoken to about the case or how much it might cost, but he said the lawyers were eager to take on a 2007 law that has made it easier for ABC to approve alcohol permits in dry counties.

“We are prepared to attack the private club law on its face, on the original legislation. I don’t think anyone has done that before,” Ammons said. “We certainly are not going to roll over for this.”

About 30 area residents attended the council meeting and stayed for a short organizational meeting afterward. Discussion during that meeting made it clear that the group fears that the restaurant serving chicken, fish, seafood and alcohol that Knight proposes to build in Ward will be just the beginning. Eventually Cabot could have a Chile’s that serves alcohol like the one in Jacksonville, which also is dry. Residents in Lonoke, Scott and every other city in the county should also be worried, they said.

“The changes in the law made it easier for private clubs to get liquor licenses,” Minton said, adding, “It’s a way of getting around a dry county.”

Alderman Marrice Jackson agreed, saying the ABC wouldn’t be content until there was “booze in every county.”

Ammons said to stop Knight would take hundreds of supporters, not just the few who attended the Friday night meeting. What is needed is a “groundswell, grassroots effort,” he said as signup sheets were passed around.