'Historic' hearing to address Whiteclay beer sales set for Thursday

'Historic' hearing to address Whiteclay beer sales set for Thursday

He watched one battle for Whiteclay from behind a camera, chronicling activists' efforts a decade ago to blockade the flow of beer from the northwest Nebraska outpost onto its dry reservation neighbor to the north.

This week, Mark Vasina plans to view another battle for Whiteclay from a seat in the audience.

He'll load up his Toyota Prius and make the nine-hour drive from Plano, Texas, to the Nebraska State Capitol, for what activists view as a pivotal moment in their fight to stop a century of Whiteclay alcohol sales.

"This is historic," said Vasina, who produced the 2008 documentary, "The Battle for Whiteclay."

"This has never happened," he said. "In the history of Whiteclay, it has never happened."

Citing concerns about law enforcement, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission is forcing Whiteclay's four beer stores to explain why they should be allowed to continue operating in a dozen-person town on the doorstep of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

For the store owners, it ranks among the most significant threats to their livelihoods in generations of legal and public relations fights. 

Attorneys for Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and Jumping Eagle Inn have sought a last-minute cancellation of Thursday's hearing, a request that is still being considered by a Lincoln judge.

If the hearing occurs as scheduled, it is expected to draw the attention of national media outlets and protesters from across the region.

Hobie Rupe, the Liquor Commission's executive director, will preside over the hearing and wants the crowd on its best behavior.

"There will be no clapping, no booing, no hissing," Rupe said last week. "This is not a public forum. This is an administrative hearing that is open to the public to view.”

As such, it should feel more like a courtroom than like the legislative hearings usually held at the Capitol. Only witnesses called by state officials, the beer stores or Sheridan County residents who are formally protesting renewal of the stores' licenses will be allowed to testify.

Those witnesses will be questioned by lawyers for each party to the case: the Nebraska Attorney General's Office, representing the state; Warren Arganbright of Valentine and Andrew Snyder of Scottsbluff, representing the beer stores; and Dave Domina of Omaha, representing the opponents.

Rupe hopes to have the hearing wrapped up in a single day.

A ruling is expected by month's end — when the beer stores' licenses are set to expire — but all sides agree the issue will almost certainly be appealed in court. The stores' ultimate fate could take months, even years to decide.

Words uttered six months ago at another public hearing triggered the beer stores' current trouble.

Jack Andersen told members of the Legislature's General Affairs Committee that local officials "absolutely do not" have adequate resources to police the tiny, unincorporated village on the county's northern edge.

Lawmakers had called the October hearing to examine ways to boost law enforcement in Whiteclay, with its decades-long reputation as a "skid row on the prairie." But the Liquor Commission seized on Andersen's comments.

Instead of automatically renewing their licenses, the commission ordered the stores to reapply, effectively holding them to the same standards as someone seeking a new liquor license.

Under state law, the Liquor Commission can deny applications for new licenses if law enforcement in the area is inadequate.

The stores reapplied, and 13 Sheridan County residents formally challenged them. That triggered Thursday's hearing.

Andersen has said his comments were taken out of context, and the Sheridan County board recommended in January that the licenses be renewed.

Even if the Liquor Commission agrees, the beer stores still face significant tests in the coming months. 

The Attorney General's Office has accused the stores of selling to bootleggers, keeping inadequate records and other violations of state liquor law. 

A separate hearing on those charges is scheduled for May.

John Maisch