Barling leaders plan to ask the Arkansas Municipal League for support in their quest to amend a decades-old state law that prohibits cities in dry counties from voting themselves wet.
“That law is a 1939 law that came about right after Prohibition,” City Attorney Matthew Ketcham said. “It’s been around that long — since Eliot Ness — and it hasn’t changed. It’s just an archaic law.”
The inequity of the law, Ketcham said, “lies in the fact that cities are on different planes.”
“If you’re a city in a wet county, you have rights that we here in Barling don’t, or Van Buren or Greenwood,” he said. “Every city should be on an equal footing on deciding if they want to be wet-dry. That’s really all we’re asking for.”
In two weeks, the Barling Board of Directors is expected to adopt a resolution asking the Municipal League to support legislation to amend the law.
“The executive committee of the Municipal League can decide if they want to support this,” Ketcham said. “What we’re trying to do this time is get prepared early for the 2015 (legislative) session to get numerous legislators behind it and to get other cities that are similarly situated behind it, under the theory that there’s strength in numbers.”
In November 2012, Barling residents voted 1,081-544 to allow liquor sales in their long-dry city. After residents filed a lawsuit, Circuit Court Judge Steve Tabor voided the vote two months later. His decision was based on a 1944 election in which the entire southern district of Sebastian County voted to go dry. State law requires an entire dry district to vote on whether a single city can allow liquor sales.
“We knew (the law) was there,” Ketcham said. “The hope was it wouldn’t get challenged, frankly. We had many discussions over it, that it could face a legal challenge, and if it did, the election probably wouldn’t stand. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened.”
During the 2013 Arkansas legislative session, Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, filed a Senate Bill to give all cities power to vote for or against liquor sales. That effort stalled in the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
“It just didn’t get any legs and died in committee,” Ketcham said.
Barling Director Bruce Farrar, who led the liquor initiative, said he’s hopeful the Municipal League can help.
“When they want something to happen, they’ll get it,” he said. “They’ll make it happen.”
Ketcham said the same law was challenged by Van Buren in the late 1940s.
“That election got swept aside on the same grounds that if you are in a county that is dry, the whole county has to vote you wet,” he said. “It’s not fair. Cities need to determine their own fate.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Barling has a population of about 4,700.