Jeff Farrell: In liquor battle, everyone will still be neighbors

Jan. 20, 2013 @ 03:48 PM

I never expected to be covering an election that could use U.N. observers, until I covered the Pigeon Forge liquor referendum.

A small-town election shouldn’t have so much venom, or so many issues.

To an outsider, it can seem insane: A tourist town, where beer and wine are already legally available, fighting over whether people can have a shot of whiskey or a margarita while they’re out. If you’re from here, and don’t believe that, trust me on this one. I’ve had lots of people asking why this is such a fight.

But I’ve tried to explain  there are any number of legitimate reasons for people to oppose it. If you didn’t support the sale of other spirits, the fact you lost that battle doesn’t mean you concede the next. I understand why a person who’s lost a loved one to alcohol could feel the need to fight its spread at every opportunity. And if your interpretation of the Bible tells you intoxicating spirits are taboo, you also have every right to let that guide your vote.

On the other hand, if you base your decision on the notion a vote for liquor will mean an opportunity to bring in new tax money for Pigeon Forge schools, that’s understandable. If you think it will benefit your business, so is that. Likewise, if you think a visitor should be able to have that margarita in Pigeon Forge and not Gatlinburg, or you just want to be able to have that shot of whiskey at an establishment in your own hometown, well, that’s also a fair reason.

In fact, you don’t need to justify your vote. Not to me, not to the other side, not to somebody who doesn’t know why this is such a hot issue — not to anyone but yourself. That’s how our system works. No one knows how you vote unless you decide to tell them.

If you don’t believe that, ask anyone involved in the imbroglio that consumed the last election. The question might be settled, if we could figure out how 289 people voted when they cast illegal ballots.

Our election officials say that was the result of mistakes, mostly made by workers at the Pigeon Forge City Hall on the day of the election. Part of the problem came from the sheer chaos of the day. It was the busiest election day in Sevier County history, and it was the first time the staff at that precinct had to sort out Pigeon Forge residents from people who live outside the city, but vote there in general elections.

That makes some mistakes understandable, but not the number that were made in November. More than 10 percent of the votes cast in the Pigeon Forge city election should not have been allowed. And depositions by poll workers show it wasn’t just errors made in the heat of the moment on a frantic day. They say they were told they should allow all the voters to take part in the referendum, regardless of where they were from.

Officials say that was still an error, however egregious, and there’s no evidence to indicate otherwise. The election commission is looking at new staff, possibly even different voting machines, in its effort to ensure there’s no repeat of any of the mistakes.

So it’s a clean slate for both sides of this issue.

There were misunderstandings about how the city’s ordinances governing the sale of beer and wine meshed with the state’s ordinances for establishments selling liquor. With 11 businesses holding liquor licenses for the time being, those should be resolved.

Likewise, people will be able to see how much money those establishments send to city coffers as well as whether the addition of liquor to some menus means more crime or avoidable tragedies.

I just hope that it means a less rancorous, less venomous debate between the two sides. From aspersions on each other’s characters and snarling encounters to pictures taken at the tombstone of family of officials and beer cans littering the church yards of pastors opposed to the measure, the first election was as nasty as any I’ve ever seen.

Nearly everyone involved in this lives and works in a small town. There’s a lot at stake for either side, and I understand that. Each side disagrees strongly with the other. They should debate the issues with vigor. If they really see corruption, they should expose it.

But they will still have to live and work with each other every day after this election is over. So do the people listening to them — the people they need to show up and vote.

In other words, however much they disagree, when the issue’s settled they will still be neighbors. So will the people who’ve had to bear witness to all this and listen to them go after each other. And I don’t mean one beleaguered reporter. I mean the folks who they see every day, and incidentally the people they need to get out and vote — not stay home, thinking they’re sick of the entire thing.

I hope they think about that, this time around.

— Jeff Farrell is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 216, or e-mail to jfarrell@themountainpress.com.