October 9, 2007

Representin’: Digging trenches

Councilwoman Mary Woolridge in her office Monday.How Councilwoman Mary Woolridge’s move toward a wet/dry vote could be undermined — by her opponents and by herI figured this was more than it seemed when I noticed a few guys wearing the same T-shirt, something about liquor not being “the problem.”Seizing an opportunity to capitalize on the success of last month’s overwhelming vote to “dry” four West Louisville precincts, a group of residents in Councilwoman Mary Woolridge’s 3rd District figured the time was right to take their shot. They’ve had successful petition drives before, stopping individual liquor-license applicants, but an outright ban — well, it’s not been tried. So Woolridge called a town hall meeting for last Tuesday, ostensibly to explain to constituents what it would mean to go dry and how to get there. That did not happen. What at first appeared to be a genuine informational meeting quickly morphed into an organizing tool for those looking to go dry. This was not an all-inclusive service to her constituency so much as an easy way to get the simpatico in the same room and show them how to collect signatures, while simultaneously excluding from the discussion legitimate “wet” voters by way of an absurd threat of police action that was out of context.Some folks told me they were there to vote. Others said they expected to ask questions. But when Woolridge announced that no one but her and her party would get the floor — she would later tell me in an interview that the “wet” people had known the structure for two weeks prior — the crowd turned restless. People shuffled, and random voices could be heard, though still at church volume, sounding disgusted.It was at that precise moment when Woolridge lost control of her crowd. The scene was sad, really, like watching a lost bison try to stand its ground amid a wolf pack. Somehow, she seemed genuinely shocked when they snarled and attacked.Among the din of loud whispers, she began pointing and yelling for police to escort people out, starting with a few in the front. Holding the mic too close to her mouth so you could hear her breaths between words, Woolridge hurled a hail of threats while the handful or so of police officers tried to cover for her, ambling toward the front, looking confused and considerably less machismo than a cop who knows his mission.Hissing and boos. Some laughter. Uncertainty. Awkwardness.She said she’d adjourn the meeting immediately because people were acting crazy.Laughter. Wild applause.Then Woolridge told the crowd that police would remove each of “you,” one by one, until the meeting could resume. There was no direct provocation for this threat — she seemed only to be carrying the weird escalation to its natural end.At that, some 200 people filed from the pews toward the back doors, loudly, taking their time, trying to disrupt as much as possible. Journalists with cameras scrambled through the lines while council aides fought the current, moving toward the front to consult with Woolridge, who seemed at once dumbfounded and relieved.A protest took root outside.“How far is it going to go?” asked Dave Neumann, who’s lived in Shively for 20 years. “First it’s this and then what’s next?” On his way out he had hollered at Woolridge, something about the essential wrongness of silencing one’s critics in a public manner and under the guise of a public meeting, and then explained that he was escorting himself out, no need for the authorities, who were quietly snickering at the whole thing anyway.Woolridge told me she didn’t think her actions escalated the situation. In fact, she is convinced the walkout was orchestrated —  perhaps even rehearsed — by liquor store owners.“If the police had not even been there, we would’ve still had the same meeting we had with the orchestrated outbursts, disrupting, it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference,” she told me in her office Monday. “This probably started after I told the liquor license owners that they were not going to speak. They started seeking folks then to disrupt the meeting.”For the 3rd District, the push for a wet/dry vote began earlier this year, when Hadorn’s Bakery — a neighborhood institution at 1800 Dixie Highway, in the western portion of the district — closed for good. Neighbors were appalled when a new tenant applied for a liquor license. With the renovated LaSalle Place condos and other attempts at rejuvenation under way, residents came to Woolridge asking for help blocking what they viewed as a step in the wrong direction. They asked to do what 5th District Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton had spent nearly a year organizing in her district.Naturally, people who sell liquor got wind of this and began calling Woolridge’s office, she said, asking for personal meetings. Woolridge refused to sit with any of them, and frustrations grew.“These license owners, they had different state reps calling me, they had different business owners calling me, and I said I’m not going to meet with anyone individually,” she said.But Woolridge had already been working with residents on petition drives, and she was planning a public meeting to plant the seeds of a wet/dry vote. It’s little shock that storeowners felt slighted.Hill Street Baptist Church had been nearly full, about 300 people, split pretty evenly between supporters of wet and dry. Eventually, probably fewer than 100 people were left listening to Bill Shreck, head of Inspections, Permits and Licenses, who gave a primer on how to initiate a wet/dry vote — basically, sign up 25 percent of people who voted in the last election. Instruction sheets were handed out. It was quiet. Woolridge stood at the mic reading crime statistics that she said could be tied to the prevalence of liquor stores in certain areas.Within roughly a half-mile radius of the intersection of Dixie Highway and Wilson Avenue are five stores that sell booze. This precinct, M130, appears to be the biggest problem, Woolridge said (she also assured me Shively would not be included in any wet/dry vote). It has become something like an article of faith here that liquor stores and crime are inextricably linked.According to police records provided by the Metro Council, 1,230 offenses were committed in that area between Jan. 1, 2006 and Sept. 30, 2007. Among the most prevalent: Burglary/breaking and entering (276), vandalism (246), all other larceny (161), simple assault (142), motor vehicle theft (124), aggravated assault (71), and robbery (57). There were also three killings and 11 instances of rape.This is nothing if not unsavory, and people — neighborhood leaders, elected officials, regular Joes — are seeking every possible option to curb these trends. Closing liquor stores is a more tangible move than getting drugs off the streets, and it certainly seems easier than enacting a major cultural swing to overcome years of the popularization of thug-life.Woolridge told me she thinks some liquor stores breed criminal activity — drug dealing, underage drinking, petty crime, loitering — and that’s reason enough to get rid of all of them in a problem precinct.But Ken Singer, who owns Expressway Liquors on Lee Street, which is not in Woolridge’s district, said it is an enforcement problem. “Any citizen can see what (a liquor store is) doing and go file a complaint,” he told me before the meeting last Tuesday. He said he’d like to see concerned council members push for expanding the Alcoholic Beverage Control program here, which would assist enforcement.But all of that — every legitimate point about this initiative, on both sides — was lost in last Tuesday’s clown show, and why wouldn’t it be? Hamilton told me Monday that while there was disagreement and tension in the run-up to her district’s September vote, nothing like last Tuesday’s meeting ever went down.Meanwhile, as Woolridge considers whether she’ll even hold another meeting, the wet/dry initiative moves forward — she told me they gathered signatures at the end of last Tuesday’s meeting. Does that seem right for an “informational” meeting? Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com