Liquor license control proposal ready for mayor

Ayanna Pressley’s proposal to revamp the doling out of liquor licenses cleared the City Council last week with a 12-1 vote. City Councillor Bill Linehan of South Boston was the lone ‘no’ vote.

The proposal, which hands back control of the licenses to the city of Boston, heads to the mayor’s desk, and if it earns Thomas Menino’s signature, its next stop is the Legislature.

For Pressley, a city councillor at-large who was elected to a third two-year term in November, last week’s vote was the culmination of a two-year effort.

The proposal seeks to lift an arbitrary cap on licenses set by the state, making more of them available and driving down costs for aspiring entrepreneurs. The limits on liquor licenses and the state’s control of them are remnants of a different era in the Bay State, when Yankees on Beacon Hill sought to constrain the power of a rising Irish population and its politicians. A liquor license can cost over $300,000 in Boston.

Under Pressley’s proposal, hashed out in several working sessions with City Councillor Matt O’Malley of Jamaica Plain, city officials would be able to determine the process around procuring and distributing licenses. Some neighborhoods have a “saturation” of licenses and don’t want any more, she said, while other neighborhoods are desperate for them. “Their main streets are not thriving and I believe that has everything to do with the fact that they don’t have restaurants,” she said.

One neighborhood, the North End, has dozens of liquor licenses within its borders, while on the other end of the city, in Mattapan, there are very few.

Restaurants, which often depend on a liquor license to help with the profit margin, generate jobs and help build a sense of community, Pressley said. “The demand for that, I’ve heard that in Hyde Park, in Charlestown, in West Roxbury as well as in Mattapan and Roxbury and our home neighborhood of Dorchester, of course,” she said.

Pressley said she has had “encouraging” conversations with Mayor Menino and Mayor-elect Marty Walsh has pledged to support the push for the proposal in the Legislature. Menino filed his own bills returning power to the city and increasing the number of available liquor licenses.

She has also met with Rep. John Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat and House chair of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection. His committee is expected to receive the petition if the mayor signs it. “I do believe there is an appetite for this and there’s been momentum building behind this,” Pressley said.

Scibak attended a City Hall hearing on the issue in August. “We are looking at a process that goes back to 1933. Clearly there’s some differences across communities and things have changed in 80 years,” Scibak told the State House News Service. “We have to be concerned that we don’t create additional problems.”

Under the proposal, the city’s Licensing Board would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the council instead of the governor having the authority. The membership would be expanded to five members from three and include one member from the business community. The board, which would be required to offer up quarterly reports to the mayor and council, would also have to consider “public need” for the license, according to Pressley’s office. The number of package store liquor licenses is capped.

The proposal also removes ties between a license and a brick-and-mortar location, and instead will tie it to the business entity. The proposal also allows for innovative business models, such as an art bar, small theaters or butcheries that want to do tastings.
Licenses purchased and owned before the petition because law would be grandfathered.

The lone vote against the petition, Councillor Linehan, told MassLive.com he supports the intent behind it, but he had concerns over the effect of the petition on current license-holders. “I truly support the idea of bringing the licensing board back under the authority of the city of Boston,” he said.