An ordinance designed to crack down on the sale of alcohol to minors in Neosho continues to cause discord and disagreement in Neosho.
Last August, during a routine compliance check, the Neosho Police Department found eight violations in which alcohol was sold to a minor. According to Neosho Chief of Police David Kennedy, the problem isn't new and it's growing.
"Over the past 24 months, we've had 4 stings," Kennedy told the Neosho City Council last August. "We have 25 liquor license holders and in those 4 stings, 19 failed. Five of those failed twice and one business failed three times."
Ordinance 2018-898 passed on the third reading at council on November 20, 2018 with a vote of 3-2 for the measure which stiffen penalties for liquor license holders in violation.
A first offense would result in a written warning from the licensing clerk to the business, a second offense within a 30-month time frame would result in a 3-day suspension of the liquor license and a third offense within 18 months would result in a month long suspension of the license.
A clerical error has created additional issues along with the failure to hold a promised meeting with liquor license holders, law enforcement and the public.
Although council members voted to amend the bill, the version signed by then Mayor Ben Baker was the original, not the amended version. The recognition of the error put the item back on the agenda at last week's meeting.
"It's a clerical error because it (the ordinance) was executed," Neosho City Attorney Steve Hays told the council. "We can amend it as it was meant to be read or you repeal it."
In 2018, a meeting was planned with liquor license holders and law enforcement to discuss the ordinance before final passage but the meeting didn't happen.
Jeremie Bridges, Neosho, the pastor of The Canopy and a founder of Hope Kitchen, and member of the Newton County Clergy Coalition, appeared as a visitor to the city council to speak out against a possible repeal of the ordinance.
"I think there's a lot of misunderstanding out there about this bill," Councilman Carmin Allen said. "We want to go after the problem and it doesn't go after the person who breaks the law, the kids. I think we can come up with an ordinance that solves all our problems. We want to make the right ordinance. The problem starts in the home."
Allen contends that the ordinance in question fails to target the one who breaks the law but after the business owner.
Discussion over the ordinance intensified as council members disagreed with contention over the planned meeting that failed to materialize.
Allen contends that he and another council member did not understand the details prior to voting on the ordinance last fall.
"I don't like being lied to," Allen said. "I was lied to."
Councilman Jon Stephens responded to Allen's allegations. "You weren't lied to. You were outvoted. Whether you understood it or not, you were still outvoted. It's a 3-2 vote. You could have known it like the back of your hand but you were still outvoted."
"Well, you can say outvoted but let me tell you something," Allen said. "That man over there changed his mind. He thought it was going to be a session until we had this meeting."
"That is what I thought," Councilman William Doubek said.
"Don't tell me it was outvoted," Allen said. "It was because you're cramming it down our throats."
Stephens reiterated. "We're trying to protect our teenagers. I think we all want to protect our teenagers. We also want to do it in a manner that can be upheld. We don't have a department that can do it. There's a law on the books right now."
Neosho Chief of Police David Kennedy confirmed his department's lack of manpower hinders the ability to perform a compliance check each quarter.
"I do not honestly feel that at current staff levels, we can facilitate that," Kennedy said. He noted that, on average, his department completes two compliance checks per year.
During the lengthy discussion, Hays noted that an original ordinance has been on the books since the late 1970's. To correct the clerical error, he stated the options.
"We just need to rewrite it correctly without the errors, then the clerk and I can sign it. We can bring back Ben Baker to sign it, to take care of that. That's a fairly simple fix but if the ultimate decision is ultimately to repeal it, then there's no need to go down that road."
"We can still call for that meeting with the owners, the coalition and law enforcement," Doubek, who was elected Mayor during the meeting, said. "It takes all of us."
"That's what I've been wanting to do is sit down," Allen said. "We have to listen to the people out there on the street. There's 12,000 people living in this town and I have people pushing me one way, I have friends on both sides of this thing."
"There are people in the community who would us not have a law at all," Doubek said. "There are people who would like us to be a dry city or a dry county."
"You're talking about messing with a restaurant owner, a bar owner, a business owners' livelihood.," Council Tom Workman said.
"It's not like the old days when the daily paper reported it," Allen said, despite the presence of the Neosho Daily News at the meeting and previous coverage on the isue.
In an effort to get the ordinance corrected or repealed, a public meeting will be held prior to the City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 7 at 6 p.m. in council chambers at city hall. Letters will be mailed out to all liquor license holders along with local law enforcement members, the coalitions and the public.