In anticipation of Saturday’s Local Option election of alcohol sales here in Minden, my last week’s column looked at the early history of the regulation of such sales here in our community. This week, we pick up in 1974, when a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court forced the most recent full Local Option in Minden before Saturday’s ballot.
In May 1974, the Louisiana Supreme Court had ruled on a case filed in another jurisdiction that any and all local liquor laws passed in Louisiana, prior to the 1948 revision of the law were null and void. Since Minden had passed its laws regulating alcohol sales in 1939, those laws were declared invalid and removed from the books.
With no prohibitions on the books, local businesses began seeking license to commence alcohol sales. The Webster Parish Police Jury and Minden City Council began to work on liquor ordinances but each body took a different approach to the issue. District Attorney Corky Marvin, advised the Police Jury to put in place ordinances regulating sales, but to limit such sales to low alcohol content beverages, essentially what is known as 3.2 beer. City Attorney Henry Hobbs took a more liberal view of the new conditions. Following his lead, the Minden City Council approved legal sales of all types and levels of alcoholic beverages. The new ordinance took effect at 3:15 p.m. on Thursday, May 16. Sales were limited to the hours of 6:00 a.m. to Midnight, except on Sunday when sales were illegal.
The passage of this law set off rapid response within the Minden community. A church group headed by Minden attorneys Graydon Kitchens, Sr., Graydon Kitchens, Jr. and Jack Montgomery along with Harry Campbell of the Administrative Board of the First United Methodist Church appeared at a special Council meeting called on May 21. The three attorneys strongly urged the Council to rescind the new ordinance and to wait until the court directly ordered Minden to change. They suggested that it was entirely possible that if another case reached the Louisiana Supreme Court in the nest session, the court might reverse itself. If the Council would not take that advice, they suggested the city follow the Police Jury’s lead in limiting sales to 3.2 or less alcohol content. The resolution from the Methodist Church pointed out that the voters of Minden had made the city dry and had shown no dissatisfaction with the conditions. They implied that the Council was violating the principles of majority rule by changing the law without public approval. They suggested at the least the council schedule an election to get public input before changing any laws. The members of the Council, unanimously stood their ground, saying the law mandated them to make the change. Several members of the Council suggested to the church groups that they launch a petition campaign to schedule a local option election. In such an election, if victorious, the anti-liquor group could return Minden to its dry status. Mayor Colten pledged to be the first to sign a petition for a vote, but again emphasized, for now, the city would follow the guidelines of the new court ruling.
By May 28, the petition drive for a local option election was in full swing. The front page of the Press-Herald featured a picture of Graydon Kitchens, Jr., presenting the Mayor with a copy of the petition which Colten promptly signed, as promised. The petition campaign was operated out of the offices of the Kitchens Law Firm and the First Baptist Church. But as that drive to restore a dry Minden proceeded, so did life under the new reality of legal alcohol sales. On June 4, the Minden City Clerk began accepting applications for permits to sell alcohol. At its meeting of July 2, the City issued permits to seven firms to immediately begin sales. For only the second time in eighty years, Minden was wet.
On August 27, Registrar of Voters Clint Brewer announced that the final petitions had been submitted from the church group and that enough signatures had been obtained. He forwarded the petitions to the Police Jury so that they could order a local option election. At their meeting on September 4, the Jury accepted the petitions and announced they would set a date for the election. By the October Jury meeting, the election had been set for November 23. On the ballot would be the three propositions called for in the petition, following the guidelines set in Louisiana law at that time. Proposition one covered package sales of beverages between 3.2 and 6 % alcohol. Proposition two covered on-premises consumption of beverages with more than 6% alcohol. Proposition three covered package sales of beverages of more than 6%. However, in a twist, the Police Jury added the fourth proposition, not included in the petition. Relying on authority from a new law passed during the 1974 legislative session, largely through the efforts of State Representative Harmon Drew, the Jury’s Proposition 4 dealt with the sale of beverages with an alcohol content of between .5% and 3.2%. The Jury’s addition of that provision would become a source of ongoing controversy and spark court cases over the next 15 years.
A spirited campaign was conducted. On November 19, just four days before the election, local restaurant owner Merrick Gray, who was operating under the new permits at Southern Kitchens No. 1 and No. 2, filed suit in District Court, seeking an injunction stopping the election. Gray’s suit contended that the Jury had added the fourth proposition arbitrarily without the necessary 25% support of registered voters for such an election. The legal action requested the Jury to remove the proposition from the ballot, or, if not possible to not count or verify the votes on Proposition Four. The Jury called a special meeting and unanimously voted to allow the election to proceed, confident that the legislative act authorized the steps they had taken in adding the Proposition. In a hearing on Friday, November 22, the day before the election. District Judge Monty Wyche threw out Gray’s suit, saying the Jury was acting entirely within the law in its actions.
When the ballots were counted after the election, the voters of Webster Parish made their opinion very clear, they did not want alcohol sales of any kind in Webster Parish or Minden. All four propositions were defeated, out of 25 precincts in Ward One, only four voted in favor of any proposition those being the Civic Center, Health Unit, Phillips School and Stewart School. Inside Minden the vote totals were as follows: Proposition 1, 2149 to 1756; Proposition 2, 1832 to 1566; Proposition 3 2202 to 1832; and Proposition 4, 2236 to 1779. Minden was totally dry once again. The City Council passed new laws regulating the sale of alcohol – actually forbidding such sales and the licenses issued to the firms were canceled and the business that sold alcohol either closed or stopped selling. Over the next decade, the results of this election were repeatedly challenged in court, first by Gray and then later by Dixie Inn resident and liquor store owner, Collin Hortman. Under the new situation, Gray, who had attempted to try and continue to sell alcohol, was convicted of violating the liquor laws. He appealed that conviction claiming the law was invalid. That appeal took several years and was submitted to the U. S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, leaving Gray’s conviction and the law in place.
In 1976, Gray launched a petition drive for a new election. The attempted failed to get the necessary signatures to call another election. Then, in 1983, the Billups gas station was party to another attempt to get a new election. Working with George Brown of the Louisiana Beer Industry League, Billups filed with the ABC board for a permit to sell low content alcohol – 3.2 beer. A petition drive began the petition was prepared, circulate and submitted. In the end, the petition fell 656 votes short of the number necessary to call a new election. It appeared the controversy was over and Minden and Ward 1 would remain dry.
Throughout the later years of the 1980s, the focus shifted to the area around Lake Bisitneau and several attempts to legalize sales resulted in brief periods when sales were legal. But on the Minden front, things remained quiet until 2003. That year the Minden Chamber of Commerce became concerned about improving the quality of life in Minden and were concerned about the inability to attract upscale restaurants in our town since restaurant sales were illegal here. The Chamber began consulting with State Senator Robert Adley to see if there was any way to make a change on strictly that one type of sales. The perception was the voters of Minden were still strongly opposed to any sort of package restaurant sales or bar sales. It seemed likely it would not be able to get enough support for calling the standard, five options, we will see on the ballot next Saturday. In the legislative session of that year, Adley crafted and got passed a special law that allowed towns of a stipulated population within Louisiana to call for a proposition that allowed only restaurant sales. (Minden was one of three or four towns in that size range and the only one that did not already allow restaurant sales.) Once the law was passed, it was presented to the Minden City Council, but early indications seemed the Council would not call for the election.
However, when the Minden City Council met at its monthly meeting on August 4, 2003, a major debate ensued over the issue. Mayor Bill Robertson commented it was the largest crowd he had ever seen in attendance at a Council meeting. Strong, organized opposition was present from the local religious community, many of the same individuals who had led the fight against sales thirty years earlier. Arguments against centered around the idea that the passage of restaurant sales might seem innocent, but it would open a slippery slope. If a special restaurant law could be passed, might it next be a special package sales law? Chamber officials stressed this was a straight-forward measure to improve quality of life, no secret plot to open Pandora’s Box. When the vote was finally taken the Council by a vote of three to two approved calling a special vote on the restaurant sales proposition for November 2003.
At this point, I have made an editorial decision, the battle that ensued over the next few weeks in Minden was ugly. I am going to mention some of the arguments made by both sides but I am going to leave the personalities that became involved largely out of my story. Both sides aggressively advanced their cases. The anti-arguments expanded their “slippery slope” approach. They expanded from simply claiming this was a back-door was to bring about bars and package sales to more extreme connections. They alleged this was an “end-around” to bring sexually oriented businesses, such as strip clubs to Minden. They also pointed out it could be an attempt to bring legalized gambling into Minden. Next, with the help of outside counsel, they suggested that the law Adley had created was, in fact, unconstitutional, violating clauses prohibiting the passage of special state laws to benefit only one community. In fact that attempt briefly suspended the campaign, before being rejected. The Chamber consistently persisted there were no hidden agendas, simply an attempt to improve the local economy.
On Saturday, November 15, 2003, the voters spoke. Fifty-three percent of Minden voters went out to the polls and by a vote of 2,561 to 1,902, restaurant sales of alcohol in Minden were approved, starting January 1, 2004. That has remained the legal status of alcohol sales since that date until now.
Again on November 16, Minden voters will face the standard, five proposition local option election. They have the option to expand the type of sales, eliminate all sales, modify the sales allowed or retain the current restaurant only status. I think local organizations have done a fine job of explaining the options on the ballot. All five are stand-alone, there is no interrelation between the five. All or any may pass or fail. I will mention one question I have been asked that seems to create some confusion regarding on the premises consumption. For example, if Props two or three pass, but Prop five fails, that would not impact restaurant sales in Minden. The approval of two or three would supersede the need for special approval of restaurant sales. So, we will now see how the voters of Minden wish to proceed on this issue that has been on the local agenda for more than a century.