SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. – A contingent of New Year's Eve party attendees, led by co-organizer Katherine Vinson, arrived at the South Pittsburg City Commission's January meeting in a foul mood.
For the last five years, some residents have organized a New Year's Eve party in South Pittsburg by renting the city's old National Guard Armory building.
Vinson said in that five-year history, attendees "never had any problem."
At this year's party, however, she said "the police were all over us."
"All we have heard is rumors — bad rumors," Vinson told the board. "Rumors that you [city leaders] wanted to shut us down."
The event's attendance dropped from 180 in the previous year to about 63 this year.
Vinson said some community members were told ahead of time that the party would be shut down, and that's why many didn't attend.
"We had people that we sold tickets to pull up and saw all the police cars and didn't stop," she said.
Last fall, the board passed Ordinance 793, which allows alcohol consumption on some city property in certain situations, but it specifically left out the armory because of its proximity to a church.
"What the board changed in that most recent ordinance was allowing an exception for the Princess Theater when it is a non-profit organization that is recognized under state law as being eligible for a special occasion permit," City Attorney Billy Gouger said.
At the time, the board tried to include the armory building in that ordinance, he said, but the charter outlaws alcohol on any public property that lies within 300 feet of a church, school or place of public gathering.
"The city could not issue a permit [for alcohol] for the event or anybody else's event because of the proximity to the church," Gouger said.
Vinson asked why the party was allowed in previous years.
"I don't know why," Gouger said. "I guess because nobody complained. I'm not sure why."
City Administrator Gene Vess said complaints from nearby church members prompted the city's investigation into the event.
He said he was disappointed that no one from the church was at the meeting to defend their position on the matter.
"They got what they wanted," Vess said. "Apparently, they didn't feel like they needed to come tonight to discuss anything. It is an issue. It's going to continue to be an issue because of alcoholic beverages in public property."
He said the church members' complaints weren't necessarily the problem.
"The issue is it's a public building," Vess said. "You can go and have a party anywhere you want as long as it's a private building, but you can't have it, according to [the city charter], in a public building."
Gouger agreed and said the board would have to consider whether or not those building distance requirements need to change.
Mayor Virgil Holder said he didn't hear anything about problems with the party until after it was all over, but he offered the offended parties a compromise.
"I think what we need to do is have the city administrator get with the city attorney and look over this ordinance and have a workshop with us [the board]," he said. "Let everyone know when the workshop is there. Let's go out and work our way through this."
Vess told the board that it might be best to remove the armory building from the list of city-owned properties that could be rented, at least for now, but no action was taken on that suggestion.
Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.