Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

Talking Point

Time to impose some authority on Liquor Authority

By Ed Gold

Incoming Borough President Scott Stringer
The problem with the State Liquor Authority is that it has refused to abide by the law, passed a dozen years ago by the State Legislature, which requires consultation with community boards before granting liquor licenses.

Barry Mallin, the most active attorney representing community interests before the S.L.A., argues that the S.L.A. has actually reduced its consultative requirement with communities by preventing community boards from appearing directly before the authority.

The authority commissioners not only won’t consult with community representatives, they don’t even want to see them — since they won’t let them testify at the formal S.L.A. hearings.

The so-called 500-foot Rule, or Padavan Law — named after its legislative author, State Senator Frank Padavan, a Queens Republican, calls for consultation with community boards if three or more licenses have been issued within 500 feet of the applicant’s proposed site.

Today the S.L.A. limits community appearances to a “500-foot hearing” before an administrative judge who tapes applicant and adversarial testimony, and who sends a subjective report — over which the community has no control — to the S.L.A. commissioners, who are free to ignore its contents if they wish.

During the past year, some of Manhattan’s elected officials have gone public with their frustrations over liquor licensing, including State Senator Tom Duane, Assemblymember Scott Stringer and Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Eva Moskowitz.

Also, there have been references by elected officials and community leaders to the Nightlife Task Force Study, issued by Virginia Fields, the outgoing borough president, which urged dramatic changes in S.L.A. practices and in the city’s response to unacceptable nightlife behavior, almost none of which have been put into effect.

Perhaps the most telling recent study pertaining to liquor-licensing policy was done by Moscowitz, who leaves the Council in January, analyzing “noisy bar” complaints from July 2004 to May 2005.

Her findings indicate the biggest problem areas in the city are concentrated below 14th St. — in Greenwich Village, Soho, the East Village, Lower East Side and Nolita.

The largest number of bar-related noise complaints filed by community boards, she found, were recorded in the East Village’s Community Board 3 (3,055), Greenwich Village’s C.B. 2 (1,866) and Chelsea/Clinton’s C.B. 4 — actually north of 14th St. — (944). And her top-10 noisiest licensed premises, including both bars and licensed restaurants, found five in C.B. 3, three in C.B. 2 and two in C.B. 4.

The task force devoted a lot of time and energy in discussing how to maintain noise control in licensed establishments, calling for the hiring of certified acoustical consultants and the development of soundproofing plans for licensed businesses offering live music. And the Department of Environmental Protection was asked to enforce noise control generated by equipment such as cooling towers and exhaust fans.

Moskowitz found that D.E.P. doesn’t send noise-complaint data to the S.L.A., including information about fines for excessive noise. This provided the authority’s commissioners with a “ready excuse for S.L.A.’s do-nothingism,” she added.

Another task force recommendation lost in the shuffle was the suggestion that the New York Police Department keep records on nightlife complaints, including complainants’ names and addresses, for use at S.L.A. hearings. The task force also called for police precincts to be equipped with sound meters and trained how to use them, a recommendation the city administration should be urged to make fully effective.

Three other community concerns about S.L.A. practices were addressed by the task force that were not forcefully advocated at either the legislative or administrative levels even though they had strong community backing:

1. Transfer licenses should be treated as new licenses: The S.L.A. almost always grants transfers without taking a deep breath, but many of the newly licensed places run operations very different from their predecessors and should be dealt with as if they were new applicants.

2. Hold special-events promoters equally responsible with license owners should punishable bad behavior take place during a special event: The task force urged that these promoters be registered and licensed by S.L.A.

3. The community must be able to get information in a timely manner: Mallin calls for the S.L.A. to “list all decisions on its Web site for all to see.” And the task force asked that printed decisions be sent to community boards as soon as they are available. Actually, controversial license decisions should be made known to all community board members and other interested community activists through community board offices.

The root cause of the dilemma with the S.L.A., as Councilmember Moskowitz sees it, is that essentially the three commissioners “have never seen a bar they didn’t like.” Only a slight exaggeration.

She notes that twice the City Council has attempted to create a City Liquor Authority, but the effort has been ignored by the State Legislature, which would have to pass legislation to that effect.

While more than 40 percent of the state’s liquor licenses are issued to New York City operations, none of the commissioners comes from the city. And they have insisted, ever since the Padavan Law was passed, that “public interest” be defined narrowly as who pays revenues and provides employment — i.e., establishment owners — ignoring all the troublesome conditions and antisocial behaviors listed in the law, which community people invoke to protect what they consider their public interest.

In her classic decision in 1997, Supreme Court Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam, adjudicating an Article 78 case brought against the S.L.A., reversed the S.L.A. decision to grant a license and noted: “If the Authority’s interpretation of ‘public interest’ is correct, then the 500-foot Rule will be wholly eviscerated and rendered a dead letter.”

Mallin notes sadly that community board “vigor” in opposing bad bars and struggling against licensing oversaturation has definitely declined in the face of continuous S.L.A. refusal to abide by the law.

Perhaps, he suggests, a new Manhattan borough president committed to 500-rule implementation will take up the community cause with more energy and possibly greater resolve, and use his office to take action on the licensing issue that protects the true public interests of his Manhattan constituency, at the same time helping residents throughout the city who are facing similar problems.

Stringer, who replaces Fields in January, has indicated a desire to strengthen community board effectiveness and galvanize community board opinion on this subject. And he has asserted that S.L.A. “must take into account” community opinion before final determination on license granting.

He should have the enthusiastic support of Gerson and Chris Quinn in the Council and Duane and Deborah Glick in Albany as he seeks to create a level playing field in the granting of liquor licenses.

Gold is a Community Board 2 member and was on Borough President Fields’s Nightlife Task Force.

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