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City can’t set last call

NATCHEZ — City Planner Bob Nix told the Natchez Board of Aldermen Monday the city did not have the power alone to enforce a city ordinance to close bars early.

Each member of the board took a few minutes or more to state his or her opinion about the city’s issue with violence at bars at Monday’s work session. They did so facing an audience of bar owners who came ready to listen Monday and prepared to speak at tonight’s regular meeting.

The board unanimously directed City Planner Bob Nix to draft an ordinance proposal at its March 8 meeting that would call for all bars to close at 2 a.m.

But after Nix said the city does not have the authority to create an ordinance restricting bar hours, the board arrived at a consensus that closing bars at 2 a.m. was not the only — or best — solution to security issues.

Since the City of Natchez is a resort area, the tax commission — not the city — has authority to set hours of operation of the bars or over licensing, Nix said.

Nix said the board could only restrict bar hours through the tax commission by passing a resolution asking for the state to make the change.

“(The tax commission) has (restricted bar hours) in other cities (when asked) but not all; they are totally independent,” Nix said.

Nix said the tax commission has no history of exempting casinos from any laws, but that the aldermen could ask for the entire waterfront development entertainment district to be exempt, which would include the Isle of Capri, a future casino at Roth Hill and the Under-the-Hill Saloon.

Nix said there are other options, which include regulating behavior at bars, not their hours.

“I have a long laundry list of things to do. It covers every aspect of dealing with these (behavior and violence problems) — basically you need to take a multifaceted approach,” Nix said.

Ward 4 Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields, who proposed Jan. 8 to draft the ordinance, spoke after several aldermen talked about the disadvantages closing bars might have on tourism and business.

“I’m not anti-club, bar, not anti-party, I see a lot of the owners, and up until a few years ago a lot of you saw me,” Fields said. “But I have to admit — and haven’t heard it yet (at the meeting) — that (the bar scene) is out of control, and something has to be done.

“I hope nobody gets desensitized to people getting hurt inside these establishments.”

Fields said he understood that closing bars early might not be the best solution, but that if bar owners do not help out, it is one thing the city could do to help control the behavior because the city has limited resources.

Nix said the city must work with the state to figure out a way to actually enforce more behavioral rules, if the city decides to adopt them.

“The most critical thing in violence (issues) is a tolerance of violence,” Nix said. “When you see people carrying guns, it’s a culture of violence, and that’s the worse kind of situation you can have.”

Nix said several tourism studies say tourists value safety as a priority when traveling and will not go places if they observe, participate in or become aware of violence.

“If we get a reputation where we have a culture of violence, we won’t have tourism,” Nix said.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis recommended the city’s bar owners form a committee that meets quarterly to address nightlife issues and to enforce rules the same.

Nix said he researched a study that said when representatives from entertainment venues in Edinburgh, Scotland, got together to compile a “don’t admit list,” that banned troublemakers from every venue, the crime rate was cut by 21 percent.

Mayor Jake Middleton, who said many of the bar owners recently met with him at City Hall, said bar owners and operators should warn each other when violent-types leave or are forced to leave their establishments.

“Call and say, ‘Hey, they’re headed your way,’” Middleton said.

Middleton said his problem was he suspects some bar owners might know who troublemakers are but continue to let them in their establishments.

Middleton said one person has died from a head injury related to bar violence, several have been airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center and other stories exist.

Middleton said when violence continually occurs, the problems at bars become the business of the aldermen.

“Right now on my desk is a $4 million lawsuit from a person who got hurt at a bar,” Middleton said. “Those of you that have those types of businesses are going to have to turn your game up,” Middleton said.

Ward 2 Alderman James “Ricky” Gray, Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery and Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard agreed the city should seek middle ground with the bar owners.

The mayor proposed bar owners meet April 4 to devise a plan to remedy the problems at bars, after the aldermen and bar owners have a chance to review the options Nix proposed.

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