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Barling Board seeks support to change Arkansas’ liquor law

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The Barling Board of Directors on Tuesday (Feb. 25) passed a resolution that officially requests the Arkansas Municipal League to lobby for legislation that would change a nearly 80 year old state law restricting Barling from voting on whether it wants to be a wet or dry city.

The vote on the resolution comes after a November 2012 vote by residents to turn the city wet was ruled invalid due to Arkansas laws which states cities in a dry county, such as the lower township of Sebastian County, cannot choose to go wet. The same statue allows cities in wet counties, such as Washington County, to vote on whether to stay wet or go dry.

Matt Ketcham, city attorney for Barling and an attorney for Fort Smith-based Nolan Caddell Reynolds, said the city's decision to ask the municipal league to lobby for the legislation on their behalf was about making state law fair.

"Our argument the whole time has been that it's unfair (to deny Barling the right to vote on this issue). It's a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. There is no reason to discriminate against some cities and not others. There's no reason to deny that right to some cities."

Ketcham said the city is seeking the assistance of the Arkansas Municipal League due to the overwhelming opposition any sort of change in the legislation is likely to receive.

"The last time (changes in legislation were proposed in 2013), there was a lot of opposition to it both from the existing alcohol lobby and all the people who run liquor stores. The last thing they want to see is more stores. It cuts into their business. They want to be the only game in town, especially if they are on the border (of a wet and a dry county)."

Don Zimmerman, the executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said in a telephone call Wednesday (Feb. 26) that Barling's desire to see a change in state law is among the few alcohol-related issues to come to the League lately.

"It's kind of yes and no," he said. "Barling is the only one that I've heard of in their particular circumstance. I have heard from a couple of retirement communities wanting to sell mixed drinks. But Barling is just wanting to go wet, I guess, and have liquor stores and all."

The communities of Fairfield Bay, Horseshoe Bend and Cherokee Village are not asking for the ability to sell alcohol outright, but instead are wanting to have the ability to sell mixed drinks without a private club license, which is how many businesses in dry counties currently get by laws limiting the sell of alcohol in dry counties.

As for how the Municipal League will determine whether to take up lobbying on the issue, Zimmerman said a decision will be made at the group's annual convention in June when its resolutions committee votes on various resolutions submitted by Arkansas cities. A vote on the recommendations of the resolutions committee will take place June 20 at the Municipal League's annual business meeting.

Ketcham said in order to get the League to possibly take up Barling's cause, the resolution approved by the Barling Board has a "plan B" which would allow for the possibility of different legislation that wouldn't open a flood of wet/dry votes, but would still work in Barling's favor.

"If they are not willing to back the proposal, then how about we amend the existing statute to allow cities that are part of a split district county (like Sebastian County) and are abut and contiguous to the wet part (of the county) to vote. A town like Greenwood would still not be able to vote because they are not abut to the part that is wet, but that would fit a town like Barling which is contiguous and abuts the Fort Smith district of Sebastian County."

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Ketcham said while Barling can try to lobby state representatives and state senators on its own, the town's elected officials realize that there is strength in numbers.

"When the legislature is in session, (the Municipal League is) lobbying on all bills dealing with municipal government. It would help a lot if the Municipal League were throwing its weight around on this measure instead of being neutral or opposing the measure."

The annual convention of the Arkansas Municipal League convenes June 18.

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