Judge throws out Pigeon Forge liquor referendum vote

Judge throws out Pigeon Forge liquor referendum vote

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PIGEON FORGE (WATE) - A judge threw out Thursday the results of a vote on a referendum that would allow liquor to be sold by the drink in Pigeon Forge.

The law passed by 100 votes in the Nov. 6 election, but a community group later sued the Sevier County Election Commission and election officials, alleging that voter fraud tainted the results.

Chancellor Tellford Fogerty ruled Thursday that the election must be set aside and voided.

The judge's ruling said poll workers made mistakes in figuring out who was eligible to vote in the November election, but found no evidence of fraud.

"Whatever mistakes were made were good faith mistakes, innocent mistakes but nevertheless mistakes," Chancellor Fogerty said in his issuing his ruling.

The court found that the election results were "incurably uncertain," just as the Sevier County Election Commission ruled Wednesday night.

The judge concluded there was no intentional fraud in the election, a claim made by the plaintiff, Concerned Citizens and Churches of Pigeon Forge (CCCPF). The anti-liquor group brought to the attention of the court that 289 more people voted than there are residents registered to vote.

The group sued the Sevier County Election Commission.

After reading 17 depositions showing poll workers' confusion and errors, the commission admitted to the chancellor that the vote was faulty while dropping an earlier motion to dismiss a lawsuit to void the election.

"There was no question errors were made at the polling places, predominately on Election Day," said Dennis Frances, attorney for the Sevier County Election Commission.

A new election will take place within 45 to 60 days for residents to vote on the referendum again.

"This is a case that should be decided by the ballot box, not the jury box, and it's going to be decided shortly," said Forging Ahead's attorney, Greg Isaacs.  

Isaacs was represents Forging Ahead, a group that wanted the results to be upheld. They say throwing out the election would disenfranchise the 2,077 people who voted. Isaacs said 88 percent of the votes were valid.    

"Even though we strongly felt that people were being disenfranchised, we think the short turn around will kind of soften that blow," Isaacs said.

Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge say Thursday's ruling was a partial win for Sevier County residents.

The group amended a complaint to delete any allegations of fraud against the election commission. 

"We were hoping they would address in more detail some of the details that didn't come out in this case," said CCCPF member Charles Rhodes.

The question now becomes, what happens to businesses that already have liquor licenses? The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission granted permits to 11 establishments in Pigeon Forge.  

Blue Moose Burgers & Wings was granted a liquor license before Christmas. Managers say they will continue to serve booze until told otherwise.  

"I don't know what it means for us right now. We've been issued a liquor permit by the state ABC, and I'm sure they'll us what overturning the vote means," said Tom Horne, director of operations for Blue Moose.  

The State Alcoholic Beverage Commission says they're waiting to review the chancellor's court order.  

The court order would determine if the ABC would need void or uphold the existing liquor licenses already granted, according to Keith Bell, interim director with the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Bell said the court order would be reviewed with the Attorney General's office.

He said two restaurants had started but didn't complete the application process. Bell said those establishments wouldn't be issued licenses.  

The 30-45 day timeframe for the new election means it would take place around Mid-March, and would be a stand-alone election.

The cost of the new election is estimated to be around $4,100. A Pigeon Forge municipal election will be held in May.

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