City’s bid for more liquor permits hits deeply rooted bump up on Beacon Hill

Mayor Michelle Wu testified in support of proposals to expand the number of liquor licenses restricted to certain neighborhoods, including Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan during a legislative committee hearing on Oct. 2. She was joined by City Councillor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune (left) and District 4 Councillor Brian Worrell (center). SHNS photo

In the state law that regulates how liquor licenses are distributed in Massachusetts, the words “except for Boston” appear dozens of times. It’s a phrase that critics – including Boston city councillors and state lawmakers who support Mayor Wu’s latest push for 250 new permits over a five-year period for underserved areas like Dorchester and Mattapan – maintain is archaic, unfair, and based in bias.

“We have a very old system for liquor licenses that was meant to control Boston and the Irish immigrant population,” said state Sen. Lydia Edwards of East Boston. “It’s based on racist, elite thinking from the past. That is why we have the home rule system for liquor and for our zoning…We have a very bad system and a very old system.”

Edwards, a former Boston city councillor, is among those who support Boston’s latest bid for additional licenses. The measure, which has unanimous support from the 13-member city council, needs approval from the Legislature and Gov. Healey to become law.

Its supporters say it is a simple ask. But at an Oct. 2 hearing of the legislative committee tasked with reviewing the petition, state representatives from Quincy, Hull, Worcester, Webster, and other communities grilled Boston’s elected officials, including Mayor Wu, for more than four hours, questioning whether there was really a need and asking for extensive information on previous liquor license requests.

Some participants from Boston said that it felt weird having to ask people from cities and towns far from Boston for an economic development tool, that the mayor was treated rudely, and that there seemed to be an overall distrust of Boston officials among committee members.

Councillor Ruthzee Louijeune, a co-author of the current bill, suggested there may be echoes today of an early 20th century bias which advanced a legal system that singled out Boston for special attention when it came to an issue involving liquor.

“It’s really rooted in discrimination toward Boston’s Irish politicians,” said Louijeune. “The Legislature in those days didn’t trust Irish politicians to regulate bars and restaurants in Boston. It’s wild to think about that, but that’s why we’re here.”

At one point during the hearing, Wu told the panel that members of the city council with knowledge of liquor licenses, such as Frank Baker and Michael Flaherty, were in the room to testify. Tackey Chan, the Quincy lawmaker who was chairing the meeting, quickly responded:
“I appreciate it Madam Mayor, however, this is our hearing…I appreciate your consideration to your colleagues, but the committee chairs and the committee here are – it’s our hearing, thank you.”

Wu’s office later said the mayor it had no comment on the hearing, but that it is working to get the information that the Committee requested, and to get an affirmative vote from the panel.

Louijeune, however, was straightforwardly blunt. “It feels very bizarre to have to ask them,” she said. “It feels like you’re asking permission and it’s a very paternalistic relationship. It felt like having to ask your parents for permission. We had to go before representatives from all over the Commonwealth and ask for this, so it felt bizarre and unnerving.”

City Councillor Brian Worrell, a co-author of the home rule bid, said the current state oversight system for Boston should be “a thing of the past,” adding, “the process is the process and people have questions, but when you have that much support from elected officials, the community, the Mass Restaurant Association, and restaurateurs in and out of the targeted areas, to me that should be a slam-dunk we can all take together. Who else do we need to convince?”

Added Edwards: “That hearing was an insult. To have people not representing our constituents question the hell out of our intentions, then attack and insult the character of Boston officials, including our mayor and city officials, it was plain wrong and hurtful.”

Members of the Committee, including Chan, were asked for interviews by the Reporter, but none responded to the requests.

For attorney Lesley Delaney Hawkins, a former executive secretary of the Boston Licensing Board who attended the hearing, said that going before the Legislature on this issue is nothing new. In 2006, she said, the city successfully petitioned the Legislature for a handful of neighborhood restricted licenses, which at the time included the underdeveloped Seaport. In 2014, the city returned with a request for more and won favor for 75 neighborhood restricted licenses. More recently, the city added two more licenses last year for the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner and the Bolling Building in Nubian Square.

The repeated trips to Beacon Hill for liquor permits is tiring, said Hawkins. “At the Oct. 2 hearing, one representative from Hull asked what would happen if one of these licenses were used for an entertainment venue. What if it does? I don’t understand how it could be the role of a legislator from outside of Boston to dictate what’s best for these communities. That’s really the role of the Licensing Board and the elected officials in Boston.”

The committee seemed laser focused on the 75 permits allotted in 2014. They were quickly distributed to areas of the city that were not among the most underserved. While they were available to neighborhoods only, including Dorchester and Mattapan and Main Street districts, they had to stay in the neighborhoods where they were first assigned, and they remain there to this day. The result was that Mattapan, which had no one ready to open a licensed establishment, didn’t get any licenses.

Hawkins said the current bill would allocate a number of the licenses released every year to specific zip codes – and they could not be moved out of those zip codes.

At the hearing, she said, the committee wanted specific plans for specific restaurateurs and did not see the availability of licenses as a tool to spur business growth.

“The argument on the numbers of licenses simply doesn’t matter,” she said. “It simply gives the city flexibility so we don’t have to go up on home rule petitions again and again…It seems to be such a no-brainer and there’s such wide support that I’m perplexed by why this is not moving forward at a more rapid pace.”

Meanwhile, Worrell said, he wants to work within the process, and get existing businesses on Blue Hill Avenue, in Grove Hall, and Codman Square ready for new licenses.

“People might just think it’s liquor licenses, but it’s health, economic development, jobs, and success – it’s much deeper than that,” he said. “Right now, we are getting restaurant operators ready and making sure they are prepared to accept these licenses immediately.”

The Joint Committee will eventually vote on reporting the bill out favorably or unfavorably. The panel is still taking written testimony from that public via email at ‘

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