Slainte spared by city’s snafu
If it’s your responsibility to enforce state liquor laws, you need to scrutinize the documentation people give you. Otherwise, you can end up in a really embarrassing situation.
Ian Farnsworth, owner of the Preble Street wine bar and lounge Slainte, already knows this, having been run through the wringer by the Portland City Council, which voted not to renew his liquor license last month due to the failure of he and his staff to properly card patrons.
Now it’s city officials’ turn to learn the same lesson.
In a memo dated January 8, city attorney Gary Wood told councilors their vote to strip Slainte’s liquor license was moot, because state liquor authorities had already granted the bar’s license renewal request based on the city’s initial recommendation.
The snafu started when the City Clerk’s office received the Portland Police Department’s annual license-review report in early September. Although the bar had been nabbed a couple times by the cops’ undercover, underage-drinking sting operation, the department recommended its license be approved, given the steps Farnsworth was taking to address the issue. An administrator in the Clerk’s office dutifully signed off on the renewal and sent the attendant paperwork to state officials in mid-September.
When Slainte was stung again in early October, the PPD revised and reversed its earlier recommendation. That prompted the City Council to call Farnsworth to the carpet and publicly castigate him for his inattention to detail, before voting 7-2 to deny his license-renewal request.
When they prepared materials for the Council’s review of Slainte’s license in mid-November, the City Clerk’s staff “did not remember that they had already administratively renewed this particular license more than two months earlier,” Wood wrote. Once state officials have granted a liquor license, the city cannot take action to deny it until its one-year term has expired.
But that oversight was just the first act of negligence on the city’s part.
The Council customarily gives bar owners facing denial of their license a few weeks to prepare their case before a vote is taken. The week before Farnsworth’s Dec. 15 appearance before the Council, he sent Wood and councilors a packet of materials detailing his efforts to address the carding issue, as well as menus and other information about his business.
Included in that packet: a copy of his valid, state-issued liquor license, formally granted on Nov. 1, 2008, and good through Nov. 1, 2009.
“My own failure in this matter is that I did not carefully look at each and every page of the material submitted by the applicant,” Wood wrote. “If I had spotted that document at that time,” he continued, “then on Monday, December 15th I would have told the Council that the item was going to have to be withdrawn from the agenda due to the existence of the 2008-2009 liquor license.”
In other words, while city officials were slamming Farnsworth for his failure to properly scrutinize his patrons, they had clear and incontrovertible proof he already had a license that they had no power to take away. They just failed to look at it.
“I’m extremely happy I get to keep operating my business,” Farnsworth said this past weekend. “I’m glad this ordeal has finally come to a close. I’m just disappointed [the license issue] was not noticed until after so long a time.”
(Adding insult to injury, the Portland Press Herald ran a photo of Slainte on its editorial page in late December next to a headline asserting that the Council’s vote had “shut down” Farnsworth’s business. In fact, Slainte remained open pending Farnsworth’s now-unnecessary appeal to the state. The paper belatedly ran a correction earlier this month.)
Writing on behalf of himself and City Clerk Linda Cohen, Wood ended his memo to councilors by saying, “We jointly apologize for this mistake and the inconvenience that it caused for you.”
Farnsworth is not only still waiting for his apology — he’s still waiting for city officials to inform him of their fuck-up.
Though Wood’s memo was dated last Thursday, he was not contacted by the city on Friday. The Bollard learned of the snafu on Friday evening; Farnsworth was unaware of it until The Bollard contacted him for comment Saturday afternoon. “I’m also disappointed I have not been notified of this [mistake], that I had to hear it from a third party,” he said.
— Chris Busby