Sheridan County's board of commissioners has voted unanimously to recommend reissuing liquor licenses to the four beer stores in the troubled village of Whiteclay.
The next step is a hearing before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, probably in early March.
Sheridan County's decision in the stores' favor came on a 3-0 vote Tuesday after about 10 minutes of discussion, said Commissioner James Krotz.
However, he said, "I've thought about little else since Thursday," when the board met in Rushville and heard four hours of testimony on the beer stores and the effects of rampant alcoholism on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The beer stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer in 2015 a few hundred yards from Pine Ridge, where alcohol is banned.
Their licenses were up for automatic renewal this year, but the state liquor board ordered Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and Jumping Eagle Inn to reapply instead, citing concerns about law enforcement in the area.
Activists have pointed to statements by Sheriff Terry Robbins and County Commissioner Jack Andersen as evidence that conditions in Whiteclay have deteriorated. Andersen told a legislative committee last year that the county "absolutely" lacks adequate resources for law enforcement in Whiteclay.
Now, Andersen says he meant local property taxpayers shouldn't foot the bill.
And Tuesday, the county commissioners said in a resolution that "what little evidence" they received suggests conditions in Whiteclay are the same or similar to when the stores first got their liquor licenses.
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Without evidence of a change, commissioners argued they lack legal authority to scrutinize liquor licenses up for renewal in the same way they would review first-time licenses.
Commissioners also sided with beer store owners and their supporters who argue prohibition isn't the answer to the Oglala Sioux Tribe's problems and shouldn't affect other people's ability to run businesses in Nebraska.
"I hope the tribe and the people that have the authority to help themselves will step up to the plate and deal with alcoholism," Commissioner Loren Paul said in an interview Tuesday. "Alcoholism is the problem, not the supply."
Activists argue the stores should be shut down because they cause violence and vagrancy in Whiteclay itself and undermine the tribe's authority.
John Maisch, a former liquor regulator from Oklahoma who wants the beer stores closed, questioned how Sheridan County could support its conclusion without the sheriff presenting any evidence or testimony at Tuesday's hearing.
"The county commissioners’ recommendation was based on fear, not facts," Maisch said in an email. "If the county commissioners had been able to base their decision on the overwhelming weight of the facts presented, there is no question that they would have recommended denial of those beer license applications."
The state liquor board has the ultimate say on the licenses, and will hold public hearings of its own before making a decision.
Hobie Rupe, the commission's executive director, had expected to hold hearings regardless. Still, enough Sheridan County residents submitted formal protests of the licenses to guarantee that happens, as required under state law.
A date hasn't been set, but Rupe said he expects the hearings will take place March 7 or 8 during the Liquor Commission's regular monthly meeting.