By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
By the beginning of next week, Pulaski County could be move step closer to being “wet” — not just in Somerset, but in retail stores all over.
Jess Lockard — the Bronston man who told the Commonwealth Journal in early April that he was responsible for a petition circulating throughout county convenience stores that would call for countywide alcohol sales — said he expects to be turning in all the names he’s collected soon.
“I’m confident we have the signatures we need,” said Lockard. “We’re moving forward.”
On Tuesday, Lockard confirmed that he was currently in the process of going around and collecting the petitions placed in approximately 40 different businesses around the county, north to south, east to west. He noted that he’s collected almost 5,000 names himself, and had spoken to the gas stations and stores about how many citizens had signed each of the placed petitions.
His estimate? Lockard figures he has anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 signatures in favor of alcohol sales in the county — though when asked to narrow that down to a smaller window, Lockard estimated about 12,000 to 14,000.
That’s at least twice as many as he needed. In order to get the issue on the ballot for county citizens to vote on it, 6,554 signatures were needed.
The petition reads as follows: “We request and demand a Election be set to legalize the sale of alcohol for a unified Pulaski County has hold.”
While Lockard’s petition just mentions “the sale of alcohol,” Lockard himself says that what he’s envisioning is merely beer and malt beverage sales in stores, much as Somerset has had since last September in grocery and convenience retailers, as opposed to liquor stores.
The idea is to help bolster businesses located outside of the Somerset city limits. Lockard is concerned that those stores will be at a competitive disadvantage to city retailers, which are allowed to sell beer and malt beverage products. Lockard said he knows of “two or three” he’s talked to that have told him they’re facing the possibility of having to cease operations due to loss of customers.
“I just think it’s sad that stores around the county might have to close their business because people are going into Somerset to buy a 12-pack or whatever,” said Lockard. “I’m trying to do something about that.”
County clerk Ralph Troxtell said that once the petition is turned in, it will be turned over to Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock to be inspected and approved. Any questions about the legality of the wording on the petition would likely require the consultation of county attorney Martin Hatfield.
If everything is good to go and legally sound, Bullock would then set a date for an option election that would be open to voters from the entire county. Last June, only Somerset city residents were able to vote on the local alcohol sales issue.
Jessica Crockett, assistant county attorney, informed the Commonwealth Journal that her office had not had an opportunity yet to inspect the wording on the petition thoroughly, and wasn’t able to give an opinion on it at this time.
Lockard, however, is not looking to take “no” for an answer.
“If they try to deny the petition for any reason, there will be a lot of very unhappy people,” he said.
“If they say the signatures aren’t valid, or if they try to say the wording isn’t legal, I’m going to run a special ad in the newspaper,” he added.
“I want people to know it’s not on me,” he said. “I did my job.”
Lockard has said that he’s sought professional advice on his petition drive and that “everything is legal.” He estimated that 95 percent of the signatures should be valid; “I don’t see any more than that” being disqualified, he said.
Lockard said that he doesn’t drink alcohol himself — he just wants to help provide more opportunities for businesses outside of Somerset that currently aren’t allowed to legally sell adult beverages.
“The way I see things, people living in Eubank or down in Jabez or down in Sloans Valley, I just don’t feel that they should have to drive several miles to get into the Somerset city limits to buy a six-pack of beer if they want it,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about it so I took it by the horns, spearheaded it, and when I start something, I finish it. You can put that down as a fact.”