Questions related to alcohol sales dominated a candidates’ forum Tuesday night hosted by the town of Clermont.
The town of about 1,000 residents with deep-rooted conservative values has resisted pressure in recent years from a few business owners who have been clamoring for Clermont to lift its ban on alcohol sales. They claim they can’t compete with other businesses that are able to sell alcohol throughout most of Hall County.
Fielding questions related to the controversial issue were incumbent Mayor James Nix and his challenger Steve Reeves; and Ward 4 council rivals Donna Reeves and James Castleberry Jr. Sharing the stage with them was Marcia Kesler, a former Clermont council member who is running uncontested for the Ward 3 seat.
“This is the hot topic,” Donna Reeves, who is married to Steve Reeves, said when asked about alcohol sales right off the bat. She said the same issue cropped up in Gainesville where she owns a restaurant along with a massage therapy establishment.
Donna Reeves and her husband said they were glad to see that the issue is being placed on the Nov. 7 ballot by way of a straw poll.
“There are a lot of people that drink in our community and to think that it doesn’t come into our community because we don’t sell it is to turn a blind eye to the revenue that we are turning away because of it,” she said.
All the candidates agreed that alcohol sales could possibly be more costly to enforce than the revenue it would bring in.
Everyone except Castleberry was OK with letting the residents decide the matter in the straw poll.
“My whole issue about beer and wine sales in Clermont has to do with the quality of life in Clermont,” Castleberry said. “This is where I live, this is where I hope my children and my grandchildren will live someday and I hope the generations after us will have a nice town to live in.”
Nix, who is seeking a fourth term, said he’s been through the controversy off and on since he was elected in 2005.
“I’ve heard all the sides, all kinds of excuses,” Nix said. “I can see the point a lot of them come from, some for and those against it… We’ve gone ahead and put it on the straw poll on the ballot this year. That will be strictly residents of Clermont. We want to hear from the citizens of Clermont as to what they want.”
Steve Reeves said the whole thing may cause more problems than it’s worth.
“If it goes on the ballot, then it will be left up to the registered voters who live here to make that decision,” he said.
Kesler said the community has already spoken on the issue on several occasions.
“I don’t drink, but if that’s what the community wants, I will stand behind it,” Kesler said. “For me, I’d prefer not to have it. I’m always afraid of the consequences that might come along with that. Some people are not responsible and may take that a step further than they need to and that brings other issues that need to be addressed.”
Nix clarified that regardless of the results of the nonbinding straw poll, the ultimate decision would be up to the council. The mayor said the poll would be of informational value for the council and added that he would only vote on the matter should a tie vote need to be broken.
About 30 residents attended the forum and submitted questions that were read to the candidates by Will Merritt, the nephew of Clermont Councilwoman Margaret Merritt who is not seeking re-election.
Election Day is Nov. 7.