Portland city council votes to close down landmark bar police called dangerous

Posted April 07, 2014, at 10:35 p.m.
Last modified April 08, 2014, at 9:57 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday night voted 5-4 to deny a liquor license for the embattled Sangillo’s Tavern, a neighborhood bar on Hampshire Street which police have labeled as dangerous in the aftermath of a late January shooting nearby.

The vote is expected to force Sangillo’s to close down after more than a half century of business in the city’s India Street neighborhood, unless bar managers can get a reprieve from the state.

City attorney Danielle West-Chuhta told the council she will have to put together a written denial to submit to the applicant and for reviewal by the city council.

The bar then will have 15 days to appeal the denial to state liquor board, and its closure could be delayed for months while state regulators work toward a ruling.

The council vote came as a continuation from its March 17 meeting, when it absorbed three hours’ worth of discussion about the fate of Sangillo’s Tavern before postponing action on the liquor license around midnight that night.

The vote to deny came after a 5-4 vote not to postpone the decision until early May, a move which would have bought Sangillo’s another month to work with police and make the case it should be allowed to stay open.

Mayor Michael Brennan joined councilors Kevin Donoghue, David Marshall, Ed Suslovic and Jon Hinck against a postponement and to deny the liquor license, while councilors Jill Duson, Nicholas Mavodones, John Coyne and Cheryl Leeman voted in the opposite in both tallies.

In the days leading into the Monday night meeting, representatives of Sangillo’s Tavern publicly trumpeted a range of steps the bar has taken to address police concerns about safety.

Among them: A pledge that all tavern staff will take alcohol training classes annually; the hiring of two doormen to work seven nights a week; the addition of night managers to be on-hand every night; maintenance of a 16-camera security system; proposals for more outside lighting and the offering to host monthly neighborhood meetings at the site to field new questions and concerns as they arise.

But to a majority of the City Council, those measures were too little, too late.

“My confidence in the ownership and management has only decreased the more I’ve learned about this,” Councilor Marshall said Monday. “The operation has endangered the public safety in the neighborhood surrounding it.”

The case of Sangillo’s Tavern became a hot topic in Portland, with well-known bartenders, bar owners and bar patrons from around the area taking to the Internet to defend the neighborhood landmark after it became clear police would be asking the council to tear up the establishment’s liquor license.

A Facebook page titled “ Save Sangillo’s” has attracted nearly 750 followers.

In a report delivered to the council prior to the March 17 meeting, Lt. Gary Hutcheson of the Portland Police Department wrote that police responded to 23 calls for service at the bar or in its vicinity between Feb. 26, 2013, and the end of January.

The highest profile of those calls was a Jan. 28 incident in which a 24-year-old Portland man was paralyzed by a gunshot wound outside the establishment just after closing time. That case, in which a shooter has yet to be charged, turned a spotlight on a venue where police say they’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the previous year.

The 23 calls for service include a May 18 incident in which a woman was reportedly grabbed by the hair and pulled to the ground by an unknown male while trying to leave the bar, and a Jan. 10 case in which a man told police a Sangillo’s patron had forced him to buy $200 worth of cocaine.

Councilor Suslovic said approving a liquor license for Sangillo’s would be a “slap in the face” for other bar owners who run establishments “in a safe, nondisruptive manner.”

“There are about 500 liquor licenses given out in Portland every year, and the police department only comes in once about every other year to recommend a denial,” he said.

The tavern also has been cited twice in that nearly yearlong period for serving or allowing minors on the premises, Hutcheson told the council, and was the subject of an additional 27 “special attention checks” as police increased patrols in the area due to the rise in complaints.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck reiterated the police department’s stance before the council Monday night, saying in comparison, Portland’s Oasis nightclub, a much larger venue in the heart of the Old Port, was the site of only one fight last year.

“When you look at Sangillo’s with an occupancy of 30, they had 10 fights, and three of them were classified as large fights,” the chief said. “I think we’ve provided a common sense and data-driven argument around public safety. This is not an argument around the history of Sangillo’s, this is an argument about one year of time, one licensing period of time for this establishment.”

But representatives of the bar have countered that they’ve done everything police have asked to try and address the safety concerns, and their lawyer described the police data as overblown Monday night.

“They made arguments that were beyond the actual data that was submitted to you,” Sangillo’s attorney Harry Center told the council Monday night. “What happened last summer was one neighbor who was making a majority of the calls [to police].”

Bar manager Kathleen Sangillo has argued publicly that patrons of other Old Port bars often travel up Hampshire Street after closing time, and many cases of unruly activity can be attributed to people who weren’t Sangillo’s customers.

Center told the council last month that only seven of the police’s 23 incidents in question were serious enough to generate reports.

He said two of them were cases where underage or already drunk patrons were denied service — as the bar is legally required to do — and became unruly. He also said the bar’s citations for serving or allowing minors on premises are being challenged and cannot be considered by the council until those appeals processes run their course.

Mavodones said he has friends and family members who live in the neighborhood and feel Sangillo’s is safe.

“For me, it’s very difficult to hold an establishment responsible for things that happen outside an establishment,” he said. “In this case, I don’t think the facts support taking away this liquor license. … It’s a neighborhood bar, it’s a place where people derive employment, and I’ve gotten emails from people from out of state who say they go to Sangillo’s.”

The family-owned tavern was founded by Italian immigrant Pat Sangillo in 1960.

In late 2012, the food and culture publication Cocktails + Joints lauded Sangillo’s Tavern as one of Portland’s destination “dive bars,” using the term endearingly to describe places with “cheap booze, strong drinks and good atmosphere.”

In the Portland Phoenix’ 2014 “Best Of” readers’ survey, Sangillo’s is in the running to be named the city’s best bar, best dive bar and having the best bartender.

“It’s a real close one for me. And the balance is public safety versus the livelihood for the people who run this establishment,” councilor Jill Duson said. “I know that a vote against this license is a vote to deny these people the opportunity to make a living, feed their families and be part of the business community in the city. … [But] you have to be really, really not plugged in and really not following the advice of the police department to have gotten to this point.”



An earlier version of this story requires correction. The Portland City Council met on March 17, not March 18, on Sangillo’s Tavern.

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