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Liquor Law Appears Doomed as GOP Vies To Vote No on Matter

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader

Fearing the approval of an amendment to the town code which would ease restrictions on the town's liquor ordinance, thus enabling more restaurants to offer bars in town, four of the five Republicans on the Town Council announced that they will oppose the amendment at Tuesday night's council meeting. The announcement was made at an impromptu press briefing at the offices of The Westfield Leader, several hours before the start of the council's agenda setting meeting.

Attending the press briefing were Third Ward Councilman Neil F. Sullivan, Jr., First Ward Council representatives Gail S. Vernick and Norman N. Greco, and Second Ward Councilman James J. Gruba. The other Second Ward council representative, Matthew P. Albano, has recused himself of participation on the matter as the result of a professional conflict.

The introduction of the ordinance, which took place on April 21, received support from Councilmen Sullivan and Gruba as well from Democrats, Mayor Thomas C. Jardim, Third Ward Councilman John J. Walsh and Fourth Ward Councilman Lawrence A. Goldman. Fourth Ward Councilman Donnell Carr abstained and Councilman Albano recused himself. Mrs. Vernick and Mr. Greco were the only council members up until this week who had continually opposed the ordinance.

Councilman Greco said the Democrats have not been able to come up with any benefits the town would see from more bars in restaurants other than more eating establishments coming to town.

The issue has been debated by the council since last June. The Democrats on the council who support the measure have said they believe the change will help the restaurant business in town while not increasing alcohol-related problems in town. Until this week Councilmen Sullivan and Gruba had supported the measure, although Mr. Sullivan was starting to have reservations.

Speaking on behalf of the Republican majority, Councilman Sullivan, a member of the Laws and Rules Committee which released the latest ordinance on the matter, said during the press briefing that the proposed change would have modified restaurant liquor licenses in town, currently restricted to table service only, by allowing each of these restaurants to provide service from what is defined in the ordinance as a "public" bar.

Public bars do not require consumption of food. Currently, persons who patronize one of the three restaurants with restricted licenses must order food before being served in the food service area.

Restaurants are allowed to have a lounge area but at this point none of the three restaurants has taken advantage of that option, according to the Republican council members.

"This (the modification of the liquor law) proved to be extremely unpopular with the majority of the residents and organizations came who before the Town Council over the past month," stated the Republicans in a prepared statement released to The Leader.

Council members Vernick, Sullivan, Gruba and Greco stated that their decision was based on "what was good for Westfield."

"The risks of the proposed change and the deeply felt (opinions) of the residents who have contacted each of us and appeared before council far outweigh any possible benefit," said Councilman Sullivan.

The Republicans, who did not give Democrats any inkling of their decision during the lengthy discussion on the matter at the May 13 meeting, announced they were united on the issue regardless of the outcome of this Tuesday night's vote.

At the May 6 meeting, public sentiment, represented mostly by PANDA (Preventing Alcohol, Narcotic, and Drug Abuse) and Parent-Teacher Association representatives and local ministers, was against the proposed ordinance which would ease up on restrictions concerning the town's five restrictive restaurant liquor licenses, commonly referred to in the town code as "conditional" licenses.

Ken Marcotte, who is the co-owner of a restaurant under his name with a conditional license, and two supporters spoke in favor of the change.

During the council meeting Police Chief Anthony J. Scutti said based on past experience with Westfield's eating establishments and the restrictions imposed on conditional license holders who might choose to add a bar, he does not foresee an increase of alcohol-related incidents from the change. Currently, Westfield's three bars, all of which offer restaurant seating, must close by 1 a.m., several hours earlier than the customary time for bars.

In neighboring Clark, for instance, Chief Scutti said bars can remain open until 3 a.m. If approved, conditional liquor licenses that add bars would require them to close no later than 11 p.m. and some days even earlier.

He said Westfield police currently respond to about three or four calls a month regarding arguments, mostly involving disagreements between patrons in the bars and outside which are quickly resolved.

"I cannot previously recall any major incident relating to our liquor establishments," Chief Scutti told the council.

Under the restrictions included in the ordinance, the maximum number of bar stools would be eight, no exterior entrance to the lounge or bar area would be permitted, no inexpensive food could be sold at the bar and discount drinks would also be prohibited in an effort to prevent happy hours, and restaurants would have to close when the kitchen closes, which is 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

With all these provisions, Chief Scutti said he feels the town would still be catering to "the restaurant-type clientele rather than creating a bar trade." He said his opinion would be different if the town was increasing the number of liquor licenses in town.

The town has hit the maximum number it is allowed to issue under state regulations. Of the nine plenary retail consumption liquor licenses in town, four are unrestricted and five have conditions. Of those five, two are not active at this time.
Officials have said the only hotel conditional license in town, currently held by La Petite Rose, requires that the hotel is part of the complex. The upscale French restaurant is next door to the Westfield Inn. The hotel license, which does not permit a restaurant bar, is not impacted by the proposed change in the liquor law.

In responding to an inquiry from Councilman Sullivan, Chief Scutti said the bulk of the driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrests occur in the 2 to 3 a.m. range. He said he was not aware of any arrests of a person who had come from a Westfield establishment.

Councilman Walsh said he does not believe the number of unrestricted licenses in other communities are causing an increase in the number of DWIs.

According to Town Attorney Charles H. Brandt, current restaurant operators are likely to control the amount of drinking in their establishments due to tough liability laws in the state.

Councilman Carr said he believes alcohol that is being purchased and abused is being bought at liquor stores, not restaurants. He called it "really superficial" to lay the blame on eating establishments for problems related to alcohol abuse.

Assistant Town Administrator Bernie Heeny called a number of communities to seek out information regarding their liquor laws. Those towns included Union, Scotch Plains, Cranford, Berkeley Heights, New Providence, Paramus, Fairlawn, West Orange, Madison and Ridgewood.

Those towns, it was discovered, only have the unrestricted licenses. Summit, it was noted, has nine restaurant licenses, some of which have sit-down bars. It is up to the operator in Summit as to whether to include a bar in the establishment. In addition they have four club licenses for country and eating clubs. Town Administrator Edward A. Gottko said the towns contacted do not restrict the number of seats allowed for a restaurant to have a bar.

In the proposed Westfield ordinance, the number of seats would be a minimum of 75 in order to have a bar, an increase of 50 from the current requirement for a conditional liquor license.

"No town has restrictions. That's the bottom line," said Mr. Gottko.

The change of heart by the two Republicans would all but seem to defeat the ordinance. Even if Mr. Carr were to change his vote, the result would be a tie which would still defeat the ordinance. The first order of business Tuesday will be a decision on whether to keep the hearing on the matter open to public comment. The Republicans say they will push for a close to the hearing and a vote on the matter.

During Tuesday's meeting, 18 questions included in a letter from Karen E. Mortenson of Sinclair Place, an opponent of the modification in the liquor licenses, were reviewed by the council. Councilman Goldman said he felt the majority of items had "little relation" with the ordinance in question.

In terms of insuring that restaurants do not seek more bar stools in the future, officials noted that establishments are always free to make a request but the council has to make the final decision.

On the issue of smoking at bars, Mayor Jardim said he pulled down some information off the Internet from another city on such restrictions. He said smoking in bars as it relates to second hand smoke, both in the bar and restaurant area, was an issue the council may want to address at a later date.

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