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Memphis’ Alcohol Commissioner Removed

Memphis- The Memphis City Council denied Mayor Willie Herenton’s reappointment of Reginald French to the Alcohol Commission last Tuesday during a chaotic, racially charged meeting.

French, the beer board’s chairman, was initially approved for another three-year term by a 7-6 vote. But the action was later reversed after Councilman Brent Taylor brought up the issue for reconsideration and changed his vote. French had already left, thinking he was approved.

After the second vote, council member Joe Brown left, too, telling a reporter in the lobby that he had a message for his colleagues: “Quit being racist.”

In a council committee session earlier, French was grilled by Councilman Jack Sammons on a number of issues, including French’s acceptance of campaign contributions from owners of strip clubs he helps regulate. French was also asked about his involvement in a corruption probe in Atlanta.

French, who is African-American, responded to the council’s inquiry by charging he was targeted in part because of his skin color.

“This is all about politics and race,” French said bluntly during the meeting.

The council’s vote denying French’s reappointment came just a week after a report was issued about adult-oriented businesses in Memphis.

The report by consultants hired by the city and county was highly critical of the Memphis Alcohol Commission, which has the authority to revoke beer permits of adult clubs with repeated violations, such as obscenity and prostitution. It found the commission allows club owners to pay fines in lieu of license revocation.

Among the recommendations, the report suggested forming a separate board that would take away permit authority from the Memphis Alcohol Commission.

French took issue with the report, saying the commission does revoke licenses, but club owners go to city courts and are allowed to re-open.

French, 41, who ran this year as the Democratic nominee for Shelby County Sheriff, accepted a $1,000 campaign contribution from Platinum Plus strip club owner Ralph Lunati and another $1,000 donation from Black Tail Shake Joint proprietor Charles “Jerry” Westlund.

French told council members the contributions were legal and did not sway his votes on the commission. He pointed to a $26,000 fine levied by the commission last month against the Black Tail Shake Joint for prostitution complaints.

French was also asked about his cooperation with federal authorities in Atlanta after he was caught transferring $10,000 from a contractor to two Atlanta city officials. He testified in a January 2003 corruption trial there that he wore a recording device during the FBI probe.

French said he was involved in a legitimate business deal, but referred further questions to prosecutors in Atlanta.

Council member Barbara Swearengen Holt said she was “uncomfortable with Mr. French being here on trial today.”

The committee vote on French’s reappointment was 5-5, split down racial lines. Later, during the regular session, French won approval from the council and then left.

But Taylor, who was absent for the committee, later asked for the item to be reconsidered. The second time, instead of voting “yes,” Taylor abstained. That produced a vote of 6-6, meaning the reappointment failed.

Voting to support French were Brown, Holt, Dedrick Brittenum, Edmund Ford, TaJuan Stout Mitchell and Rickey Peete. Voting “no” were Sammons, Carol Chumney, E.C. Jones, Myron Lowery, Tom Marshall and Scott McCormick.

“I thought, quite frankly, it was time for a change,” said Lowery, the only black councilman to vote against French.

French said in a phone interview later he was most disappointed with Lowery, who French said had told him “over and over again” he would support his reappointment.

Herenton could not be reached for comment.

The council, meanwhile, voted to approve the appointment of Rick Middlebrook to the nine-member Alcohol Commission. The council also approved the re-appointments of William Cox, Martavius Jones and Robert West. The proposed re-appointment of Ella Mosby was delayed after concerns were raised about her attendance record.
 

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