Friday, February 27, 2015

TOP STORY >> Liquor petition nears deadline

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville wet-dry campaign has until Thursday to turn in 1,415 verified signatures for putting to a vote whether alcohol sales will be allowed or continue to be prohibited here. Not meeting that deadline means starting over, and now petitioners are up against seemingly faceless opposition.

The front of a mailer paid for by “Keep Jacksonville Dry and Safe” and received by a Leader editor on Thursday states, “Sometimes the best way to protect Jacksonville’s future and quality of life…is by doing nothing at all. Don’t sign on the dotted line.” The back reads, “Protect our future and our quality of life. Don’t sign the petition.”

“Keep Jacksonville Dry and Safe” has not registered with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, according to Graham Sloan. He said groups that are raising money to campaign must register within five days of spending or collecting more than $500 in contributions.

But, Sloan added, a lot of people are unaware of that requirement. Also, the first financial report for a group is due 15 days after the end of the month in which that group was registered.

The mailer further states the following “facts”:

 “Crime skyrockets when counties go wet. Crime rates for assaults, prostitution, and even murder are alarmingly higher in Arkansas’s wet areas.” An asterisk directs the reader to note that statement is based on an Arkansas Family Coalition Crime Stats Report available at

When a similar placard was mailed out to residents protesting the liquor petition two years ago, then-Police Chief Gary Sipes said those statistics were simply not true.

In 2011, based on figures provided by the Arkansas Crime Information Center, the dry White and Lonoke counties had statistically higher crime rates than the mostly wet Pulaski and Garland counties.

The Leader reported then that, even though about half of the state’s 75 counties are dry, nearly all have some exceptions, and those areas would have to be pulled out of any “dry” statistic to be valid. Also, DWI-related fatalities were found to be pretty even in both wet and dry counties.

 “Hard alcohol sales in Jacksonville don’t guarantee new restaurants, and may hurt existing local mom-and-pop businesses.” The city’s chamber of commerce is collecting signatures in support of the wet-dry vote, and many chamber members are local, small businesses.

 “Allowing hard alcohol sales will hurt our economy. When you factor in reduced quality of life, higher crime, and education costs, it makes no economic sense to go wet.” Those who support going wet have touted a University of Arkansas at Little Rock study that found Jacksonville going wet could add $600,000 to the city’s economy.

The chamber group, as of Feb. 10, had collected 200 of the 1,415 signatures needed.

Chamber board president Roger Sundermeier said Thursday, “We are still moving forward.” But he and events coordinator Amy Mattison didn’t have an updated count of signatures.

Mattison blamed the recent bout of winter weather. She added that she had been and would continue contacting those with petitions every day to ask that they turn in the signatures they’ve collected.

The last week of January, the campaign turned in more than 5,000 signatures. The first week of this month, 3,593 were certified by the Pulaski County clerk’s office. But a total of 5,008 are needed to set an election.

Petitioners have said before that, if the campaign is successful, a special election could be held this spring.

A state law passed in 2013 allows residents of the defunct Gray Township to circulate the petition. If voters approve of going wet, alcohol sales will be allowed at restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, according to that law.

The township, which contains 90 percent of Jacksonville and the half of Sherwood north of Maryland Avenue, voted in the 1950s to be dry — not allowing alcohol sales.

People can sign the Jacksonville petition at the chamber office, 200 Dupree Drive, or contact events coordinator Amy Mattison by phone at 501-982-1511 or via Facebook. The chamber has a page on the social media site.

The Sherwood chamber has spearheaded its effort over the same period as Jacksonville but has collected just 1,500 of the 4,752 signatures needed there. Going wet could add $10 million to Sherwood’s economy, according to the UALR study.

Economic developer Barry Sellers said Friday that the group is holding off on signature gathering in favor of pushing bills in the legislature that would help both cities.

The two campaigns have been circulating their petitions since the summer of 2013.

The Sherwood campaign is considering several other options, Sellers said previously. Those options include lobbying the legislature to reduce the number of signatures required by state law from 38 percent of the registered voters to 10 percent — the same required for other ballot measures.

The Sherwood petition drive was also put on hold a few months ago so that its supporters could campaign for a constitutional amendment that would have turned every county in the state wet. But 57 percent of voters statewide struck that down in the Nov. 4 general election.

There is another petition drive underway to put the statewide initiative back on the ballot in 2016. The 2014 amendment would have made the petition drives by both cities obsolete if it had passed.

The local-option elections will not mean more liquor stores — unlike the statewide initiative that would have brought some to dry counties in The Leader’s coverage area — because the state Alcohol Beverage Control Division allows one liquor store per 5,000 people and Pulaski County is maxed out on permits.

But liquor stores in Jacksonville and Sherwood would likely be allowed to relocate — not next to churches or schools because of zoning requirements — to areas that were once dry if voters do approve of going wet in local-option elections.