Vergennes council balks at issuing permits to City Limits

VERGENNES — With a memo in hand from Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel detailing three $500 fines assessed to the City Limits Nightclub for allegedly over-serving alcohol to patrons, on Tuesday the city council for a second time decided not to act on the Green Street bar owner’s application for its annual liquor and live entertainment license.
Instead the council chose to invite City Limits owner Brett Ward, who was unavailable to attend this past Tuesday, to its April 24 meeting to discuss the issues Merkel raised.
In his April 6 memo Merkel said he met with Department of Liquor Control (DLC) Inspector Jay Clark the week before. According to Merkel, Clark told him that while Clark was at City Limits giving Ward two notices of violations carrying $500 fines and “attempting to acquire video recordings” related to those incidents, Clark “witnessed a violation in the immediate presence of Ward, subsequently resulting in issuance of another notice of violation ($500 penalty).”
According to Merkel, one of the earlier incidents came on March 11, when city police cited a driver for driving under the influence of alcohol, a driver police alleged had been drinking at City Limits. Police alleged the suspect’s blood-alcohol content tested at 0.289 percent, almost four times the legal limit for driving of 0.08.
The other incident came on March 15, when on patrol early in the morning police helped a man having “difficulty walking” home after allegedly drinking at City Limits. Police said his BAC tested at 0.256.
At the meeting City Clerk Joan Devine said the DLC has in the past suspended Ward’s license for seven days, and that the DLC could be considering a suspension this time as well even though it had to this point just issued tickets.  
“It just doesn’t happen overnight,” Devine said.
City Manager Mel Hawley advised the council not to deny or suspend City Limits’ license, or even to set any conditions on it, at the Tuesday meeting because there would be no “due process,” particularly in Ward’s absence. 
“I would guard against doing that,” Hawley said. “Brett should have an opportunity to address the city council and talk about the content of that memo.”
Hawley said, however, that the council does serve as the city’s liquor commission and might want to consider its options at a meeting to which Clark will be invited.  
“The city council is who makes the expectations clear,” Hawley said. “Based on the memo, the expectations need to be made clear.”
Deputy Mayor Jeff Fritz, filling in for absent Mayor Renny Perry, asked if the hearing was put off until April 24 if there would be time to act for Ward to renew City Limits’ license before its expiration deadline.
Hawley suggested the time frame was not the major issue.
“If you got this memo in October, you’ve got to ask yourselves what you would do with it,” he said.
In other business, the council:
• Agreed to spend $350 to buy an ad in a brochure that will promote Vergennes that is being prepared by Middlebury artist Doug Lazarus. Lazarus said local businesses and tourist attractions have also bought ads for the brochure, which council members agreed would have a distinctive look that should make it stand out on racks. Lazarus said he plans to print 3,000 in the first year and distribute them within a half-hour drive of the city. The city funding will come from donations left in a collection box near city docks.
• Discussed options for new doors to the rear of the city hall lobby that city offices share with the Vergennes Opera House. Council members said they prefer glass doors, which Hawley said would cost $5,300 and could be locked, unlike the current doors, and offer visitors a look at the conference room now being renovated. But Hawley and Fritz said theater backers like the current doors, which need renovation.
Council members agreed to give the theater group two more weeks to propose a viable alternative, at which time they said a decision needs to be made to allow the conference room project to be completed.
• Heard from Fritz that the search to replace Hawley as city manager had already drawn eight applicants, with two from as far away as California. The search committee, of which Fritz is chairman, will meet on Tuesday to develop an interview process. “All in all, I’m really pleased,” he said.
• Heard from Hawley that the October increase in sewer rates has stabilized the city’s sewer budget, but that police spending is running a little high due to overtime. One officer has been out due to illness, leading to overtime for other officers, he said. “I’m not predicting we’ll be under budget,” Hawley said, adding that the department is adding a second part-time officer to help bring overtime spending in line.

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