Gainesville finalizes open container ordinance

The Gainesville City Commission finalized the open container ordinance installed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect, especially on restaurants and dining.

The 5-2 vote came with Commissioners Gail Johnson and Desmon Duncan-Walker in dissent. The same two commissioners also voted against the ordinance at the July 19 meeting that advanced the legislation.

Commissioner David Arreola sided with Johnson and Duncan-Walker at the July 17 meeting but joined the majority for Thursday’s decision.

The ordinance removes restrictions concerning possession and consumption of alcohol while on city property and in public right-of-ways. However, an amendment added at the last commission meeting on Aug. 5 still prohibits open containers from 2:30 a.m. until 7 a.m.

Restrictions on the sale and distribution of alcohol remain in effect.

Duncan-Walker asked Gainesville Police Department (GPD) assistant chief Lonnie Scott to the podium for a question: does the police department support the open container ordinance?

Scott said he and the GPD command staff get asked the same question from the public and it is why GPD does not speak out against the ordinance.

“My answer to them, quite frankly, is that we weren’t asked,” Scott said, adding that the police department’s job is to enforce whatever laws the commission legislates.

However, he said the public has shown its opposition to the ordinance in the conversations he and other officers have had with citizens.

“I can tell you right now, in the calls that I have, in the interactions that I have, overwhelmingly, the public does not want to see that modification,” Scott said.

Mayor Lauren Poe reported the open ordinance citations from the last four years that the city had requested.

Poe reported that GPD has issued 97 citations, with 53 to African American citizens and 44 to white citizens.

“That is not representative of our city’s population,” Poe said. “That is clearly discriminatory enforcement.”

He added that 40 percent of the citations went to homeless individuals.

“Homeless individuals represent a tiny fraction of our community, yet this was overwhelmingly used against them―the people who can least afford any type of citation like this,” Poe said.

Poe also said the city had a letter from the Southern Legal Counsel, ACLU and the National Homeless Law Center supporting the legislation.

Johnson clarified the statistic, pointing out that the number of citations went from 11 in 2018 to nine in 2019 to four in 2020, leaving 73 citations for 2017.

Number of open container citations:

  • 2017―73
  • 2018―11
  • 2019―9
  • 2020―4

Commissioner Harvey Ward proposed the amendment at the last meeting, acknowledging other commissioners and community members’ concerns. But he said the 2:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. restriction would deal with the major problems caused by open containers.

On Thursday, Ward said the amendment came from talks with GPD officers and command staff who were concerned about the ordinance.

“That’s how we ended up where we are―with what [GPD] recommended,” Ward said.

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