The battle over bar hours in DeKalb goes to the next round

On first blush, DeKalb County Chief Executive Vernon Jones' decision to veto a measure to cut back bar hours would seem a form of political suicide. There are angry constituents in the northern part of the county, and a seemingly slam-dunk issue: curtailing the problems associated with late-night drinking.

It was an issue Mayor Shirley Franklin and city leaders embraced when Atlanta voted to roll back bar hours in 2004 after a series of fatal bar brawls and loud complaints from Buckhead residents. And going up against angry homeowners and neighborhood groups seems an especially precarious stance for Jones, considering that he's running for the U.S. Senate and must appeal to more conservative voters outside the metro area to have any chance of winning.

"The whole opposition is really driven by one person, as far as I can tell: Vernon Jones," says DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader, who proposed the rollback. "The CEO is running statewide. I don't think the rest of the state is quite as tolerant of the entertainment industry as DeKalb is. This may not play well for him."

Jones says he vetoed the measure for the simple reason it would cost the county revenue and some bar workers their jobs. And he says his veto won't harm his race for the Democratic nomination for Senate and the right to take on Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss.

"It's just like the Republicans who say your patriotism is questioned if you oppose the war," Jones says. "That's like saying if you're opposed to stripping working wages and putting the county's financial stability into a disastrous position, then you're not for quality neighborhoods. That's stupidity. That's ignorance."

Supporters of the rollback, which would have moved bar hours in unincorporated DeKalb from 3:55 a.m. to 2 a.m. weeknights, and to midnight Sunday, say it would have a negligible effect on county tax revenue.

Rader's proposal passed 4-3. He says he'll try to convince the commission to override the veto, probably Nov. 27, but he'd need one more vote to do that. If the commission fails to override the veto, he plans to push a compromise to allow neighbors within 1,500 feet of a nightclub to decide whether to allow alcohol sales until 3:55 a.m.

"My great fear is that it's going to take the same sort of bloodshed that had happened in Atlanta to get people to focus on this issue, and to come to the obvious conclusion that we don't need to be a late-night entertainment destination," Rader says.

Some of the nightlife scene that used to be centered in Buckhead has now shifted to DeKalb because of the later bar hours. And many of the clubs – Jermaine Dupri's Studio 72, the Velvet Room and Pure – cater to a black clientele. The fight over bar hours has also become a symbol for the political racial divide in DeKalb: In an ad taken out in CL by nightclub supporters prior to the commission vote in October, Rader was accused of not wanting African-American nightclubs in DeKalb.

But the racial overtones could harm Jones' chances for support in the Senate contest from white, north DeKalb moderates. According to Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, the CEO already is perceived in north DeKalb as someone who is pro-development with no room for compromise.

"The veto is consistent with a lot of other things he's done," Abramowitz says. "He's seen as someone who's in the hip pocket of developers and is totally unresponsive to concerns about quality-of-life issues in the northern part of the county. Maybe that's a little unfair, but that's definitely the perception. This just kind of reinforces that image."

Jones also has the reputation of brashly following his own course despite the political consequences. And on this issue, he says it's not about race or showing favoritism to black-owned clubs. In fact, last weekend DeKalb police conducted a three-day crackdown on bars dubbed "Operation Hammer Time." They swept through clubs, looking for violations of the county business permit regulations. The operation resulted in 500 arrests and citations.

"It has nothing to do with culture," Jones says. "It has nothing to do with all those other things. Those commissioners are elected by special interests and they represent certain districts. I'm the only one elected countywide, and I'm elected to represent the best interests of the people."

Jones has offered his own compromise: to charge higher fees to new nightclubs that want to pour liquor until the late hours, and to earmark the money from those fees to the police department.

Jones says most of the nightclubs that have opened in DeKalb obey the law and haven't created problems. "Why would you penalize someone who has been law-abiding?" he says. "You can't throw the baby out with the bath water. We have laws on the books. We have police officers. We have code-enforcement officers. If an entertainment venue breaks the law, we go and enforce the law."

Abramowitz says the bar issue epitomizes how Jones has been a polarizing influence on the county, unable to forge a coalition that cuts across racial lines. Jones' term is over next year, and Abramowitz expects the person who succeeds Jones will be the one who can build a broad base of support.

"Vernon's sort of like the George Bush of DeKalb County," Abramowitz says. "As long as he's there, I think there's not going to be any real change."

And the Senate race? Abramowitz says the bar battle won't harm Jones' chances: "You can't hurt someone who already has zero percent chance at winning."