ELIZABETHTON — The Elizabethton City Council said farewell to two long-serving members Thursday night and took the first steps to bring liquor stores into the city after a referendum authorizing them was approved by the voters on Tuesday.
It was the last meeting for Richard Sammons, who has been a member of the council for 12 years, and for Charles LaPorte, who was on the council for eight years and served as mayor pro tem for two years. Council also honored Major Greg Workman and officers John Bulla and Trevor Salyer of the Elizabethton Police Department for earning the Medal of Distinguished Service for their courage in defusing a confrontation involving an armed man.
There was a great deal of public interest on the first reading of an ordinance establishing new regulations to govern liquor stores in the city. The ordinance passed with little comment. Sammons took advantage of his last night on the council to be the only member to vote against the ordinance. He also voted against two other measures involving alcohol. One was a readjustment in the city ordinance to bring it into conformity with state law. The readjustment reduced the size restaurants must be to qualify for an on-premise license. The vote reduced the required capacity from 75 people to 40. Sammons also voted against a change in the zoning ordinance that limited liquor stores to the arterial business district. In all three of these, Sammons cast the only dissenting vote.
The proposed ordinance does not limit the number of liquor stores that can operate in the city. The consensus was that the number of stores should be determined by the marketplace rather than an artificial monopoly established by council. The stores must be within the distance requirements the city already has that limit the sale of alcohol in proximity of churches and schools.
After the ordinance was passed on first reading, LaPorte attempted to make one amendment. The ordinance includes a 5 percent “inspection fee” on all wholesale items bought by the stores. LaPorte said the state allows the fee to be as high as 8 percent and he made the motion that the city’s regulation should include the maximum allowable charge.
Several council members and some members of the audience said that would place Elizabethton stores at a competitive disadvantage in comparison with Johnson City stores.
At this point, Sammons took the opportunity to explain his votes on alcohol matters during the evening.
“I have lived without these stores since I was a little boy,” Sammons said. He recalled the time when the city outlawed the stores when he was very young and how his mother and others rejoiced in the closings.
“I would love to see it stay that way,” Sammons said. “You will not gain a thing,” he said of the justification the stores will bring new revenue into Elizabethton. “You will pay a lot more to the police department,” he said.
LaPorte’s amendment to increase the tax on the stores was voted down by 4-3. Only Nancy Alsup and Sam Shipley joined LaPorte in voting for the 8 percent inspection fee.
A public hearing and second reading of the ordinance will be held on Dec. 13.
There was one other controversial decision for the council. It was requested to guide the staff on a claim by Victor and Nancy Hopson for $7,182.29 in damages to their driveway done on June 13 when an 8-inch water main burst. The claim was rejected by the city’s insurer, Tennessee Municipal League Risk Pool, because the city was not found liable under the Tennessee Government Tort Liability Act.
Mayor Curt Alexander said the city’s water line had caused the damage. “Government needs to do the right thing,” Alexander said. “It was our water line and it destroyed private property. You are never going to go wrong by doing the right thing.”
There was a concern among the staff and some council members of “opening a can of worms” in which the city would pay for all claims rejected by their insurer. LaPorte also said he felt a responsibility to the rate payers.
The vote on paying the Hopson’s claim was 4-3, with LaPorte, Sammons and Shipley voting against it.
At the close of the meeting, Alexander gave LaPorte and Sammons an opportunity to deliver their final words.
LaPorte took the opportunity to thank his family and the city employees. He said when he was newly elected he thought the employees worked for one boss, the city manager. He said he has since learned they have 14,000 bosses, which is the population of Elizabethton.
Sammons, the owner of Sammons Hot Dogs, had only four parting words: “Eat more hot dogs”