Villa Rica voters will not only decide three city council races next month, they will also decide if the council can issue licenses for package sales of alcohol.
A referendum on allowing the package sales of distilled spirits will be on the ballot of the Nov. 2 general election.
All residents of the city, including those who live in Douglas County, will have a chance to vote on the issue. Depending on where they live, voters will also be asked to decide council races for city wards 3, 4, or 5.
Early voting for the Nov. 2 vote began on Tuesday and will continue through Oct. 29. Those who have not voted by then, or who have not submitted an absentee ballot, will report to their polling places on Election Day.
The City Council voted to place the referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot on Aug. 10. The move did not come from a particular desire of the council to allow package sales, but rather to get ahead of what city officials saw as an inevitable successful petition drive that would require them to call the referendum.
During a work session that preceded the council vote, city attorney David Mecklin explained that, previously, state law allowed residents to request a referendum by a petition drive — but only if they could get enough signatures to match 30% of the voters of the most recent election.
But this year, the General Assembly amended that law to reduce that matching percentage to 20%.
Getting enough signatures to clear the 35% hurdle may have been difficult before, but Mecklin told the council there had been several recent attempts to start a petition drive anyway.
With fewer signatures now required, he said that it is more likely that a new petition drive would succeed.
If that happened, Mecklin said, the city would be obligated to call for an election, which can cost in the range of $10,000 to run.
Because the change in the state law also allows cities to move forward with a referendum, Mecklin advised that the council do so. By acting before the Sept. 8 ballot deadline, the city could put the question on the already scheduled — and paid for — November general election ballot. Otherwise, the special election would be on the city’s tab.
“This does not support or oppose package sales of liquor in the city,” Mecklin told the council in August. “It simply allows a referendum for the voters to decide whether or not they want you to consider it.”
If the referendum fails, then the matter cannot be brought up again for another two years. And even if it passes, Mecklin said the council would still not be obligated to authorize package sales.
“If it passes, then the council has to consider whether or not it wants to authorize package sales within the city,” he told the council members. “You’re not required to, even if the referendum passes, but at least you will have some indication how the public feels about it.”
Referendums involving liquor have had a varied history in Carroll County, where most of Villa Rica sits. The most recent such votes took place in 2018.
In May of that year, voters in the county narrowly approved a referendum to allow Sunday package sales in the unincorporated region. Of the 13,131 votes cast in that race, the question passed by only 93 votes.
However, in November of that same year Villa Rica voters approved the so-called “brunch bill” with a 62% margin. It allows restaurants in the city to serve alcohol 90 minutes earlier on Sundays than previously.
The “brunch bill” was not on the Carroll County ballot that year, but it was on the ballots of neighboring Douglas County and Douglasville, where it also was passed by a large margin.