(Editor's Note: Allen Moore is the co-owner of the Skybox Bar & Grill on Brown Street.)
On Monday, October 26, my wife and I will be attending another Westbrook City Council meeting at Westbrook High School's Room 114. This will be our fourth meeting with the City Council, and the City's attorney, Bill Dale, will be proposing a way to revoke licensing the Council never granted. This meeting appears to be only the latest example of the City harassing my wife and I, so I have decided to write this post as a way to set the record straight for our upcoming battle with the City of Westbrook.
The Beginnings of Our Troubles
In June 2008, I met with Mayor Bruce Chuluda and had meetings with the City explaining our intentions to reopen the Skybox Bar & Grill on Brown Street in Westbrook. In August 2008, the City Council granted all licensing to operate our business, except liquor and entertainment licenses. On a 3-3 vote, liquor and entertainment licensing were denied, even though we had done nothing wrong. The City's attorney, Bill Dale, explained our options. We could persuade a city councilor to change their mind, or we could appeal to the state liquor board. We chose to appeal to the state.
The state liquor board ruled with clear and convincing evidence that we were unjustifiably denied a liquor license by the City of Westbrook. The state ruled that, as new management, we deserved the right to operate and could not be held responsible for problems from prior management. The state granted us a license pending renovations on December 22, 2008.
Denial of Occupancy Permit
During a December 22, 2008 conversation with Lt. David Bowler of the Maine Department of Public Safety, we discussed issuance of the liquor license. At this time, I believed the turmoil with the City of Westbrook was over. However, Lt. Bowler informed me that when it came time for the city to issue a certificate of occupancy, the city was going to refuse. I was in disbelief.
After months of delay and thousands of dollars of investment, it appeared more harassment by the City of Westbrook was on the way. Sure enough, after non-cooperative attitudes from the City's fire inspector Chuck Garrett and the City's code enforcer, Richard Gouzie; after walls were built, torn down, and built again; and after hours of discussion over one sprinkler head that was 1" too close to a post that was later removed to pass the fire inspection, Richard Gouzie refused to issue an occupancy permit. Gouzie refused to issue an occupancy permit because he believed a change of use had occurred at the location at 212 Brown street, even though there was no documentation anywhere at City Hall to support his theory.
Gouzie's decision brought everything to a grinding halt. In order to move beyond the impasse, my wife and I had to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals. Due to the timing of events, we did not go before the board until March 2009. Fortunately, the Zoning Board of Appeals overturned Richard Gouzie's decision and ordered him to issue a certificate of occupancy. Our attorney has requested the findings of fact from the March 2008 Zoning Board of Appeals decision, but the City has failed to produce the documents.
The actions by the City at this point have cost us thousands of dollars in legal fees and seven months of good winter revenue.
Opening Day: March, 19 2009
It took so long to open due to hurdles from the City that our licensing was up for renewal April 1, 2009, less than one month after we opened for business. Standard procedure is for the City Clerk to issue renewal licensing automatically, unless the City Council requests to look at a licensing renewal. City Council President Brendan Rielly requested to see us.
After about one week of being open, the City Council denied all our licensing requests at the hearing. The reasoning given was an unsubstantiated telephone complaint about people in the vicinity of the Skybox received two days before the hearing occurred. During the hearing, the City Council asked their attorney if the rejection of bar's food service license would prevent an establishment from selling liquor under the state license. The City's attorney said yes.
At this point, after being harassed by the fire inspector, the code officer, and the City Council, my wife and I had no choice but to file a lawsuit against the City. We have been denied equal protection of the law through selective enforcement by City officials.
As the City spread propaganda about our establishment, they appeared determined to shut us down no matter what it takes. I've received numerous phone calls about how we are being watched beyond the call of duty. We have been informed by police that we are under a microscope (the officer said spotlight to me). The city has a guilty-until-innocent fixation toward my wife and I and toward the Skybox. We are new license holders: It is on the record that anything that has happened at that establishment in the past has nothing to do with us.
Some members of the council have made their preferences clear: They have a specific problem with the small-business owners, working class, and professionals that come to our establishment.
Regardless of what any City employee may say, this is how we run our establishment: We have a zero-tolerance for people who want to cause trouble. But we also treat everyone with respect, which is exactly the way people should be treated. We don't look down on anyone, and this is what makes my wife and I the people we are. Small business owners, professional and working class people alike come into our place because it is a clean, inviting, and friendly environment. They come to eat, shoot pool, play pinball, listen to music, play darts, watch sports on one of our ten TVs, or to enjoy one of our ten drafts on tap. People also come to our place just to have a Pepsi and be social.
The police like to pretend we are non-cooperative, but their false accusations are simply uncalled for and unprofessional. Since we have been open, we have learned a lot about the bar business. It is impossible to know a trouble-making patron before they bring attention to themselves. But at the Skybox we ban trouble-making patrons as soon as we identify them. We have a good list of the people we no longer allow in. If we identify someone as a big problem, we have the Westbrook Police serve them with no trespassing papers. A problem patron has been a problem patron only once at the Skybox.
Unfortunately, we have recently asked the police to assist in our efforts, but they have been non-cooperative. As far as our establishment being non-cooperative with police, my wife and I have worked closely with the police department on a number of occasions. We point out trouble spots in the neighborhood. We have let them enter our establishment to remove alleged suspects upon their request. We have granted their requests to not allow a half-dozen or so people who've been served paperwork to return again. We call the police when it is necessary, only to have it count against us.
This last point confuses me, because the City Council has stated that when the establishment calls the police, it is supposed to be a positive thing. Moreover, the Westbrook Police Department has told us not to hesitate to call them and that those calls wouldn’t be used against us. We are cooperative with Westbrook officials, but it is the police and the City who are not cooperating with us.
We are part of an industry that creates jobs and adds to the tax bases of local and state governments. We have the support of other local businesses. If you looked at Frenchtown a year ago, it was deserted with no jobs or tax base. The neighborhood was in the sights of the City for more welfare housing.
We are proud of the fact that we helped bring the Frenchtown community back to life and put people back to work. I strongly feel the approach the City has taken toward us has been in efforts to wear us down with hopes of depleting our resources through bogus proceedings, abusive discovery requests, and legal motions. Unfortunately, most victims abused by the City do not have the means, the know-how, or the staying power to defend themselves. What the City is doing is clearly wrong and uncalled for. And it is critical for future business owners and citizens of Westbrook that this case in particular is resolved in the highest courts of law.
- Allen Moore
Related: The Four Mules Reject Skybox--Again (May 5, 2009)
Related: Owner of Skybox Threatens to Sue City (April 8, 2009)
Related: Skybox Set to Re-Open--For Now (March 12, 2009)
Related: More Skybox (February 17, 2009)