Crowd control pushes GNV to revisit open container

Prompted by law enforcement feedback, the Gainesville City Commission passed a two-part motion Thursday that could lead to a new open container ordinance along with special permits for businesses to continue serving alcohol outdoors.

Both parts of the motion direct staff to return with finalized forms, meaning the commission must wait a couple of weeks and pass additional votes before any final rule.

The first part directs the city manager and attorney to bring back an ordinance that would reinstate the open container prohibition that Gainesville had before.

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The second part directs staff to create a process through which Gainesville businesses can apply to receive an exemption from the open container ordinance at their properties.

The two parts split the commission with a 4-3 vote for each. Mayor Lauren Poe and Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut proved the decisive factors. Poe voted against the first motion and for the second motion while Chestnut voted for the first motion but against the second motion.

In August of last year, the city repealed its open container ordinance, already on pause during the pandemic, allowing alcoholic beverages in public at any time except from 2:30 to 7 a.m.

The August commission passed the repeal on a 5-2 vote with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker and former commissioner Gail Johnson in dissent.

Commissioner Reina Saco brought the item back for discussion with the aim to increase restrictions, and acting Chief Lonnie Scott Sr. spoke to the problems during a quarterly Gainesville Police Department (GPD) presentation just before the item.

“I think one of the things that I have to emphasize to you is that we’re at the point now—with the staffing that we have and the challenges that we face—that I’m concerned for the safety of my officers as well as the neighbors,” Scott told the commission.

Crowd gathers in downtown Gainesville
A nighttime crowd gathers in downtown Gainesville.

The problem has been crowds driving and walking to congregate on sidewalks, parking garages and even streets. Scott said the groups don’t stay outside a restaurant to consume alcohol from the business.

Instead, they take their own alcohol with them to drive and congregate all through the night—sometimes at city parking lots or Home Depot or Wawa.

Scott said GPD has always worked to control crowds in midtown and downtown, dating back to when he served on patrol in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In the past, he said GPD could restrain the crowds, but lately the situation has started getting out of hand. Scott attributes some of that to people from outside Gainesville coming in and joining crowds.

Scott added that his police officers have started warning him of the escalation and lack of safety that they felt. He said that burnout and overtime has also hit officers hard.

“Gainesville, quite frankly, has become the regional hub for folks in and around this area to come drink and hang out,” Scott said.

Acting Police Chief Lonnie Scott
Acting Police Chief Lonnie Scott

He said other cities enforce these order maintenance issues much stronger, forcing citizens from Jacksonville or Palatka to drive to Gainesville.

“You do this in Ocala and it’s going to be a really bad night for you,” Scott said.

A chief problem for GPD is staffing. Currently, the department has 35 vacancies for sworn employees and 20 for civilian employees. The department has started employee incentive plans, and Scott thanked the commission for that support.

GPD has extended six job offers in the past week with 16 potential recruits undergoing background checks. But once hired, Scott said it can take months to a year before the recruits become full officers.

Enforcing order at night in downtown and midtown from Thursday through Sunday leaves the department in a tight spot if a situation pops up somewhere else, according to Scott.

Scott said the situation hurts morale and may force the department to reassign employees to ensure patrols are covered.

“We have a recommended number that we would like to staff the shift with that we think is optimal,” Scott said. “They do not meet that recommended number every night.”

He showed the commission a five-minute video from officer body cameras trying to disperse crowds. Several times, officers would stop a fight only for another to start further away.

The video is available on the Facebook livestream from the meeting and starts at 4:09:45.

Scott said Easter Sunday required 50 additional officers, but the department still could have used more. While not every night reaches that level, Scott said many do.

Some of the video showed officers responding on Easter Sunday to a city parking garage, and on Sunday, May 1, at 2 a.m., GPD responded to a homicide at Gainesville’s Southwest Parking Garage.

On Thursday, interim City Manager Cynthia Curry announced changes to limit overnight use of the parking garage to only patrons.

“We live in a beautiful community that has been shocked and saddened by recent late-night violence that has led to a tragic loss of life in the Southwest Parking Garage,” Curry said in a city email about the changes.

Curry said the city would also install additional lighting, add more security cameras and increase the number of security guards at the parking garage.

Anthony Rue, who operates Volta Coffee located at the Southwest Parking Garage, said during public comment that the problem occurs continually, not just Easter weekend, and that he finds bullet casings outside his business every week.

“Since the open container has been repealed, things have progressively gotten worse,” Rue said.

A little over a month ago, Rue said he tried to go to his business at 9 p.m. on a Sunday but couldn’t access it because of the crowd.

Volta Coffee just celebrated its 14th anniversary at the location, and Rue said he worries about getting a phone call that his windows have been shot out.

He added that it’s left to him to clean up the mess after these crowds. A mess that consists of condoms, hair extensions, bullet casing and glasses.

Commissioner Harvey Ward put forward the motion, seconded by Saco, that he said would allow responsible businesses to apply for an exemption to the open container ordinance—for their and the community’s benefit—while still creating an open container ordinance for the rest of the city.

Both Arreola and Hayes-Santos expressed concern about segmenting parts of the city with and without an open container ordinance, raising questions of equity and clarity.

Hayes-Santos said GPD’s problem wouldn’t be solved by an open container ordinance, and Poe said he feels the same as in August, calling the ordinance “dumb” at best and “highly discriminatory” at worst.

Saco called the two-part motion a middle ground between reinstating the open container ordinance city-wide without exception—which she would vote against—and keeping the status quo that GPD can’t currently handle.

Desmon Duncan-Walker supported reinstating the open container ordinance, maintaining her position from August. She also said the commission should have seen the warning signs from GPD last year.

“And even then, there was a predictor that we would draw in more crowds,” Duncan-Walker said. “[GPD] didn’t have the staff then, and you probably would not be able to address some of the safety issues that undoubtedly would arise throughout the city.”

After both parts of the motion passed, Hayes-Santos immediately put forward another motion.

The motion, which passed unanimously, directed the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion to examine the open container ordinance that could become final in the next couple of meetings. The motion also directs the city manager to return with a plan and budget.

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