Wednesday, March 1, 2006

City Council flexes muscles

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Using a new tactic to control bars in the Old Port, the Portland City Council last week overruled the objections of the city’s police department and renewed the entertainment license of the bar 188 Bourbon Street, which also operates a banquet hall called the Pavilion, both located at 188 Middle Street.

But the council, whose ability to restrict liquor licenses is limited by state law, used a city law targeted at outdoor entertainment to limit the bar's indoor live music and dancing.

Any business holding an entertainment license — a special addition to a liquor license that expires the moment a bar’s liquor license does — must still obey city noise restrictions, requiring relative quiet after 10 pm from any source, indoors or out. But the council went further, allowing 188 Bourbon to stay open and continue to serve alcohol until 1 am under its liquor license, but requiring the bar's entertainment to stop at 11:30 pm on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights.

The council has often limited events to certain hours, but usually as part of an permit for outdoor entertainment, like the speakers at Natasha’s, which are not allowed to be on until after 5 pm, according to Amanda Berube at the city clerk’s office. In that case, the restriction is because Natasha’s is surrounded by businesses that might be disturbed if the tunes came on too early, Berube says.

“It’s just been more of a recent” move to limit indoor events, she says. So recent, in fact, that no minutes of any council meeting in 2005 — and only last week’s meeting in 2006 — even show councilors moving in that direction.

And it happened twice in the same meeting. The first time, in the discussion for the Tree’s new license, the motion, by councilor Karen Geraghty and seconded by councilor Will Gorham (the council’s lead dog on controlling the bars), failed.

But councilor Jim Cloutier, who abstained from the debate on the Tree, liked the idea so well he proposed it for 188 Bourbon Street shortly thereafter. He did not return a phone call seeking comment on his motivation. The council also tried — but failed — to block outside seating, though it succeeded in forcing 188 Bourbon to renew its license in six months, instead of granting the usual year-long permit. That, too is “something that they’ve started to do” recently, Berube says.

“They’ve curtailed what they see as a problem on our Ladies Night,” which draws 300 to 500 people on Wednesday nights, says Jim Albert, the club’s owner. While he admitted the problems were from his patrons, they were “outside the club, after closing,” and therefore should be handled by the police, he says.

Albert thinks it is “hypocritical” for the city to charge a bar-stool tax to support police presence in the Old Port, and then penalize bars for the work police officers have to do. Further, he says his lawyer told him 188 Bourbon bouncers should not be dispersing crowds on public streets, citing liability concerns.

“Maybe it’s time for the patrons that cause the trouble to be accountable,” by being arrested or summoned to court, Albert says.

The council also subjected Albert to another form of discipline — as promised in December, when Gorham, chairman of the council’s public safety subcommittee, said he would move all entertainment- and liquor-license renewals to the end of council meetings, rather than have them early in the evening.

The club’s permit was not even taken up for discussion until 9:30 pm, and debate finished just before 11 pm. Albert, who didn’t bring his attorney to the 7 pm meeting — thereby avoiding having to pay for four hours of an attorney’s time to get 90 minutes of help — remembered having his business addressed more in the middle of the meeting the last time he had to renew his license.