PALMETTO -- Palmetto officials Monday night passed an alcohol ordinance designed to serve a dual purpose.
The primary effect will be to ease zoning restrictions in the commercial district to create a better environment to attract businesses wishing to serve alcohol to patrons. It also defined a special-function permit to allow alcohol sales on public property while tightening city open-container laws.
Commissioners have been debating the ordinance for weeks with Ward 1 Commissioner Charles Smith leading a campaign to ensure citizens and police officers do not enagage in unnecessary encounters.
The ordinance originally allowed police officers to approach citizens drinking out of unmarked containers on public property to ensure the beverage didn't contain alcohol.
"Say you have a family
gathering in a park and mere suspicion will bring the police out to inspect what's in your cup," said Smith. "A private citizen shouldn't have to be allowed to show any law enforcement officer what's in your cup."
Smith said he does not believe the Palmetto Police Department would single out individuals, but the fact remains: "Culturally, people are treated differently."
Smith said he is more concerned the law will be on the books for generations of city leaders to come.
"These seats are going to change," he said. "The chief is going to change. We don't know who the next mayors will be. I really want to finetune this thing and as I read this, I'm saying we are allowing too big of a leap of faith to just say having a cup in your hand opens you to police inspection."
Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells said removing the "cup" terminology associated with open containers would have no impact on the way his officers "approach a probable-cause contact. The only thing that is changing is that our officers used to have to see someone drinking alcohol. Now we are saying they can't have an open container (containing alcohol) on public property. Our job is still the same. It doesn't matter what the container is. It matters what's inside and we still have to prove that."
The ordinance passed unanimously with an amendment limiting an officer's ability to approach citizens based solely on the kind of container from which they are drinking.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.