St. Paul Strong sounds alarm over neighborhood restaurant liquor licenses

"While city staff state that they have met with district council leaders and the city’s business review council regarding the proposed change, there has been no public hearing or published opportunity for broad public input."

11 November // Posted in City Hall Scoop / Fred Melo

An effort to allow more neighborhood restaurants to serve hard alcohol came and went before the St. Paul Charter Commission with little visible objection, at least on the surface. The commission voted 12-1 on Tuesday to waive its own second public hearing and allow the proposal to proceed to public hearing before the St. Paul City Council.

In other words, this one could be wrapped up by December and new liquor rules for St. Paul restaurants outside of downtown could be in place in January.

That’s not to say everyone is happy with the plan, or the process. While noting that she wasn’t necessarily against the intent of the rules changes, attorney Jane Prince, council member-elect in Ward 7, told the charter commission Tuesday that she felt the amendments to the city charter were being rushed through with insufficient public notice. And she has company.

“I feel that this meeting was not sufficiently noticed,” Prince told the charter commission.

And her objection is a big deal, at least potentially. Changes to the city charter require a unanimous vote of the seven-member council. If she were to vote “no” on the liquor license proposal, that would delay implementation for months and force the city to decide the issue by public referendum, a potentially pricey and time-consuming exercise.

But it looks like Prince — who will not be seated until January — won’t get her to chance to weigh in as a council member. At the urging of City Council Member Chris Tolbert and charter commission members Chuck Repke and Brian Alton, the commission forwarded the proposal to the city council for a public hearing and a public vote, both of which are likely to happen in early December.
St. Paul Strong founding member Ruby Hunt served on the St. Paul City Council from 1972 to 1982, and as a Ramsey County Commissioner from 1983 to 1995. She's not happy with waiving a second public hearing on changes to the city charter regarding neighborhood liquor licenses.

St. Paul Strong founding member Ruby Hunt served on the St. Paul City Council from 1972 to 1982, and as a Ramsey County Commissioner from 1983 to 1995. She’s not happy with waiving a second public hearing on changes to the city charter regarding neighborhood liquor licenses.

Tolbert and Ricardo Cervantes, director of the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, told the charter commission that the proposed liquor rules were developed from the ground up, at the urging of the Highland Park District Council, and have already been vetted with the various city district councils.

“It’s good for the evolution of St. Paul,” Tolbert said. The cap on neighborhood liquor licenses hasn’t changed in decades, even though the city looks far different than it did when those numbers were first drawn up.

Currently, the city allows for 200 “on-sale” licenses for establishments that serve hard liquor, as opposed to those that serve just beer and wine. Bars are also included in that total — and as of September, 187 of those licenses had been issued, according to this Nov. 2 piece in the Pioneer Press.

Calling the process rushed, a coalition of critics of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s administration nonetheless maintains that the timeline amounts to further evidence of heavy-handedness from the mayor’s office. The group, dubbed St. Paul Strong, has been sending out email missives to supporters claiming a general lack of transparency at City Hall.

Here’s a selection from the media advisory shared with 11 news outlets by John Mannillo, a founding member of St. Paul Strong:

The amendment would lift the city’s cap on liquor licenses for restaurant establishments. While city staff state that they have met with district council leaders and the city’s business review council regarding the proposed change, there has been no public hearing or published opportunity for broad public input.

Some of those concerns were echoed by charter commission member Jeff Maas, who cast the sole dissenting vote on Tuesday. “I’m missing the citizen part of the process here,” said Maas, who wondered if the outdated section of the charter dealing with liquor licenses shouldn’t be removed altogether.

Former Ramsey County Commissioner Ruby Hunt said that forcing the proposal into the hands of the city council before the new council is seated in January felt underhanded.

“This proposal would go without any kind of study and without the required readings,” said Hunt, a founding member of St. Paul Strong, in a voicemail. “I’m not opposed to doing away with liquor licenses, but I think this is a rampant disregard of transparency and openness in government.”
Neighborhood restaurants serving martinis.

Neighborhood restaurants serving martinis.

Attorney Tom Goldstein, who ran for city council against Council President Russ Stark on Nov. 3, added the following via email:

So they’re pushing through this measure with no public engagement, no marketing data, and no evidence that restaurants can’t succeed in St. Paul unless they have a liquor license. The city has no plan for job creation, but they’re apparently so desperate for revenue that they’re willing to get it through more liquor sales and liquor license fees. What’s next, a casino in the Midway to go with the proposed soccer stadium?

The restaurateurs in attendance at Tuesday’s charter commission meeting felt differently.

Pat Mancini of Mancini’s Char House said he had been assured by Cervantes that his bar and restaurant would be grandfathered into the new rules and could remain open until 2 a.m., as opposed to midnight. He felt comfortable with the rule changes.

A few other proprietors of neighborhood eateries also weighed in to support the new liquor rules. “I would love to serve a Bloody Mary at the Highland Grill,” said restaurateur David Burley, addressing the charter commission. “I would love to serve a martini at Scusi.”

Addressing Prince’s concerns, Alton said there will be sufficient opportunity for public input at the upcoming city council hearing.

Added Matt Anfang, executive director of the Minnesota Commercial Association of Real Estate, “my neighborhood restaurant deserves to grow.”