Holding their liquor


If an establishment wanted to sell takeout beer, City Council approval was most certainly needed – that is, until recently. A recent court ruling has countered Council’s granting powers, which were written into state law last summer and dubbed Act 39. The act stated businesses looking to sell "to-go" malt beverages after Oct. 31, 2005, had to get the OK from Council before seeking a special permit from the state’s Liquor Control Board.

Council members deemed Act 39 an effective way to crackdown on nuisance bars, stop-and-gos and establishments whose sale of takeout beer is their predominant moneymaker. Since the fall, 830 establishments received the green light for takeout beer sales from Council, while 50 did not. More than 40 businesses took those grievances to Common Pleas Court, Council staff attorney Steven Masters said.

Judges Joseph Dych and Gary Glazer eventually reversed the refusals, ruling the action violates due process.

"Upon review of these Act 39 adjudications, we have come to the inescapable conclusion that there is no ‘wall of division’ between those prosecuting and those adjudicating the charges," the judges’ written opinion stated.

Masters said in a recent interview with the Review Act 39 needed to be changed. He made note of a letter drafted by Council President Anna Verna and Mayor John Street to state legislators last August stating the act is a great law, but, "City Council is not the best agency for this."

The mayor and Council "are in agreement that some body or commission should be deciding these applications," the attorney added. "There hasn’t been further discussion to really narrow it down yet. That’s something that will be decided."

In the interim, Council has suspended accepting applications for takeout beer permits. According to the Liquor Control Board, an establishment wanting a permit still must apply to Council’s clerk’s office. If refused, the applicant may then file directly with the board.

It doesn’t come free of charge, however. Though her bar was granted a permit, Antoinette Renzulli was perturbed by the $600 in application fees she forked over between the city and the state.

"I think that for an established tavern that’s been in business for so long, it shouldn’t have to take a permit to sell [takeout beer]," said the owner of Dolphin Tavern, 1539 S. Broad St.

The bar’s proprietor for 55 years, Renzulli feels the state, not the city, should have the ultimate say over who receives a permit.

"Anything to make money," she said of the city.

But even taking the process out of Council’s hands and placing it into another city agency has its problems, Marvin Finkelstein, owner of Philadeli, 410 South St., said. He feels this maneuvering is still not taking the permit applications out of Philadelphia’s "political process."

MANY COMMUNITY LEADERS supported Council’s power to grant approval to applicants, as they typically viewed these businesses as a breeding ground for criminal activity and a threat to the area’s quality of life. Reducing problems associated with stop-and-gos and nuisance bars has been a goal for many Council members and Act 39 was drafted to create some authority in addressing neighborhood concerns.

"Local residents should have a voice in what happens in their community," James Helman, acting president for the Committee of Concerned Citizens, said. "That voice is best represented by the people on City Council. Nobody knows our community like district members of our City Council."

Helman disagreed with the court ruling and felt Council should receive all of the authority it was initially granted.

"Stop-and-gos and nuisance bars help to contribute to the violence and mayhem in our community," Helman, whose group is a member of the Grays Ferry Partnership, said. "I don’t think there is such a thing as too much power when it comes to controlling them."

Since active community members attend zoning hearings and keep tabs on establishments, Helman said his neighborhood only has two businesses that occasionally pose problems.

Though the authority may be shifted, Verna, an Act 39 supporter, would still like her peers to be involved in the decision-making process.

"She thinks that Council should have a say in these permits," the council president’s spokesperson, Tony Radwanski, said.

After forming a citywide "nuisance bar and stop-and-go" task force in January 2005, Verna recently initiated the creation of neighborhood task forces in five Council districts, including one for Point Breeze and Grays Ferry. The remaining districts are in the process of implementing their own groups. Each force consists of community and business leaders, police, elected officials and representatives from city agencies.

"This is a quality-of-life issue that really affects neighborhoods at a very basic level," Verna said in a statement. "I feel that this process will coordinate all the law enforcement and governmental entities that deal with nuisance bars and stop-and-gos and make them truly responsive to the affected residents who must deal with the problems these establishments create."

Helman, whose group is on the Point Breeze/Grays Ferry task force, applauded Council’s actions while Act 39 remains up in the air.

"It’s easy to ask questions, raise problems and pretty much get answers," he said of Council sessions. "That makes it much more efficient than calling three different places to try to get a problem solved."

Later this summer, state legislators plan to host hearings in Southwest Philly on changes to Act 39. State Rep. Robert Donatucci, chairman of the Liquor Control Committee, said he wasn’t surprised by the court decision. His office has received a fair share of complaints from businesses since the law took effect.

"We’re going to go back to the drawing board and correct the problems," he said