By Pam Blume
Christian Action League
September 26, 2014
BALDEN COUNTY – The American people are blessed to live in a country that has always prided itself on being a nation of laws, not men. We have federal and state constitutions and statutes that we rely on to provide for a fair and orderly process in our governance. We have a reasonable expectation that when we go to the polls to vote, the will of the people will be evident and those who have been elected to uphold the laws will see to it the wishes of the voters are carried out.
But what if the people speak and the officials don’t seem to listen? Such was the case recently in Bladen County in southeastern North Carolina.
In August of 2013, Bladen County Board of Commissioners approved placing a referendum on county-wide beer and wine sales on the ballot for the May 2014 primary elections. Ron Taylor, owner of Lu Mil Vineyard, brought the request for the referendum to Commissioners. At the time, Taylor said, “It doesn’t matter to me how the vote goes. I feel the taxpaying citizens of Bladen County deserved the right to vote on the issue.”
Four towns in the county had already voted to allow the sale of beer and/or wine, but this referendum applied to the entire county with no provision to allow any community to opt out if passed.
Concerned citizens organized as “Churches Against County-Wide Sale of Beer and Wine,” and were directed by Bruce Cannon, Director of Missions for the Bladen Baptist Association. The group held a rally in January and called upon Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, to educate citizens about alcohol use and abuse, while assisting opponents of the beer and wine initiative with building a strong coalition and campaign that could succeed at the ballot box. (See: Concerned Citizens of Bladen County Call on CAL to Help Defeat County-Wide Beer and Wine Referendum)
During the Primary election in May, the two-part referendum was defeated. County-Wide beer sales failed by a 562-vote margin and wine sales by a 533-vote margin.
Fast forward to August 2014. The Bladen County Commissioners met and voted 5-4 to put a referendum for “on-premises sales of beer and wine” on the November ballot, an act contrary to North Carolina law. The N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission would later inform Commissioners that another alcohol referendum could not be held on the same beverages for at least a period of three years.
The voters had made clear their will on the alcohol issue only a few months before. So how did this newest development come about?
According to Bruce Cannon, “The ones wanting to get the issue approved this past May were in the process of getting the necessary signatures on a petition to get the issue back on the ballot this coming November. The deadline to get it on the ballot by providing the necessary signatures was mid-August. During a regularly scheduled Commissioner’s meeting on August 4th, the item was brought up from the audience and the Commissioners voted —without checking into whether it could be voted on—to put the item back on the ballot, which prevented our local Board of Elections from having to certify over 7000 signatures had the petition been turned in.
“The Commissioners could have tabled the issue for two weeks when they already had another meeting scheduled. They could have contacted the ABC Board for a professional opinion and got more info. Instead they decided to vote on it that night.”
Canon said that he “…and other pastors who were serving as ‘watchdogs’ on this issue were in Bladenboro that night, 14 miles away, working on a separate issue, trying to keep internet sweepstakes out of Bladenboro. It was as if the ones wanting it on the ballot knew we would not be present to attempt to block it.”
“The next couple of days were spent by Curt Vincent, editor of our county newspaper, The Bladen Journal, and me calling the ABC Board in Raleigh and the NC Board of Elections to see if it could indeed be voted on. We both believed it could not be voted on for 3 more years. The item approved by the Commissioners on August 4th was a little different from the one voted on and defeated in May. The one approved to go on the ballot in the November election would have allowed ‘onsite consumption’ where the one in May was for ‘off-premise sales.’ When Curt and I kept telling the ABC Board that it was the same product (unfortified wine and malt beverages) we finally were able to talk with one agent who agreed with our position and stated the item, being for the same products, could not be voted on.”
According to N.C. General Statute 18B-604, “No county alcoholic beverage election may be held within three years of the certification of the results of a previous election on the same kind of alcoholic beverages in that county.”
Cannon continued, “Curt and I both got the news about the same time that the vote could not take place. The ABC Board then contacted our local Board of Elections and the County Manager, Greg Martin, to make them aware of this. Had Curt and I not made those phone calls I have no doubt that the vote would have been allowed.”
The Bladen Journal reported that County Attorney Leslie Johnson said the Board of Elections contacted the ABC Commission and were initially told they could place the item on the ballot — but then later in the day received word that, based on the statute, it appeared the board could not add the item and advised the board to contact the county attorney. After reading the statute, attorney Johnson instructed the Board of Elections not to add the referendum to the ballot. He pointed out that the statute refers to the type of beverage, not whether it is sold on premises or off premises. He added, “The county board of elections did exactly what they should have done. They got misinformation which was then corrected.”
Bruce Cannon and the others who had worked hard to defeat the original referendum are relieved. “We were gearing up for another fight against the referendum. But now it appears we’re in the clear—at least for three years. Those of us who stood strong against the issue in May were thoroughly elated we would not have to ‘fight’ again so soon. We all needed a little space between the next battle and the upcoming one.”