By AMANDA KIMBLE
ERATH COUNTY (October 2, 2016) – A petition is circulating around Erath County. Organizers are seeking the signatures of qualified voters. They hope the effort will lead to a local option liquor election next spring.
Dena Dinius, who has lived in the county for about seven years, is spearheading the petition drive. She is being assisted by handful of like-minded supporters. They want voters to legalize the sale of all alcoholic beverages for off premises consumption.
Co-organizer Mark Ellis said the issue is about rights, not morals.
“I am not asking for a moral decision,” Ellis said. “I am asking for a decision based on our constitutional right to vote on such issues.”
The petition was issued by Erath County Clerk Gwinda Jones on September 15. Organizers have just 60 days (until November 14) to collect the required number of signatures.
Law requires a petition to contain the signatures of 35 percent of the registered voters in the county who voted for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election.
“In Erath County, that’s 2,588 signatures,” Jones said.
Dinius said an estimated 400 signatures were collected in about 15 days. She said signatures were gathered by knocking on doors and at a few “rallies” across the county.
To expedite the effort, Dinius is seeking volunteers. She hopes interested parties will join the grassroots campaign, approach their friends and neighbors and ask them to help get the issue on the ballot.
Planning is also underway for an upcoming event where registered voters will be invited to a central location where they can sign the petition.
Dinius is also interested in finding a few area businesses where she can place copies of the petition so they can be easily accessed.
“Right now, we just need the signatures,” Dinius said.
Meanwhile, Jones said petition organizers need collect more signatures than the required minimum. She said a person’s willingness to sign a petition doesn’t give them the legal right.
Common issues that invalidate signatures relate to the omission of required information, including the signer’s printed name, date of birth, address and date. Many are also thrown out due to voter registration status.
To increase the voter pool, Dinius and a few other individuals have been deputized as registrars. They have to power to collect completed voter registration applications, but Jones said applicants are not immediately qualified to sign the petition.
Jones said the process – from application to an effective status – takes about 30 days.
“They can sign on the 31st day,” Dinius agreed.
Jones said once the signatures have been collected, the petition must be delivered to the county’s voter registration office, where officials validate signers’ voter status. When that process is complete, county commissioners meet to call for an election. The issue would be placed on the May 2017 ballot.
When asked about motivating factors, Dinius said there are several reasons why she is pushing for an election. Her concerns related to economics, public safety and convenience.
Currently, local residents drive at least 20 miles to the nearest liquor store. Dinius said while revenue is being driven into other counties to purchase beverages, additional monies, including those spent to fill gas tanks, shop at out-of-town retailers and dine are also being lost.
“I want to see that same revenue put to use here, to help improve our community,” she said. “And there’s no reason folks should have to drive so far from home to get what they want and have the right to enjoy.”
In November 2008, the majority of county voters agreed with those assertions. They voted to legalize the sale of beer and wine for off premises consumption. The issue passed by a vote of 8,433 FOR and 4,533 AGAINST.
Following that election, convenience stores, grocers and other retailers across the county started selling beer and wine.
Still, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission says while the state includes 254 counties, only 53 are “fully wet” and allow the sale of all alcoholic beverages. At that same time, only seven counties remained completely dry, leaving 194 “partially wet” – like Erath County.
Nonetheless, Dinius said preventing the need for residents to drive to neighboring counties will increase safety by reducing alcohol-related accidents – and the potential for such incidents. She said it will also reduce the number of individuals arrested for driving while intoxicated.
“For me, safety is the biggest issue,” Dinius said. “It’s a concern for those who drink and drive, but the safety of everyone else is a serious issue.”
As a businessman, Ellis said the biggest issue is the local economy.
“I am talking about increasing tourism and things that could spur economic development,” he said. “We need to establish a strong tax base so revenue from our property taxes can be used to effectively operate and improve our communities – a common sense decision to benefit all citizens.”
And, like any grassroots campaign, citizens are what the effort needs most. Individuals who would like to sign the petition or assist with the signature drive are asked to call Dinius at 254-431-9988.