Scathing report recommends overhaul of Providence liquor board

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The mayor should stop appointing elected officials to the Providence Board of Licenses, according to a just-released review of the powerful panel conducted by former Rhode Island Attorney General Jeffrey Pine.

The 13-page evaluation, commissioned by the Providence City Council, also found the five-member board lacks “consistency and uniformity” in its handling of violations and penalties, struggles with recordkeeping and occasionally violates state open meetings laws.

“It is abundantly clear that at present the board is not serving the citizens of Providence at an acceptable or required standard, and that significant changes are necessary in several areas,” Pine and attorney Matthew Dawson wrote in the report. Their firm, Lynch & Pine, was paid $10,000 for the review.

Appointed by the mayor with confirmation from the City Council, commissioners for the board of licenses are paid $19,713 a year – the chairman makes $26,850 – and generally meet about three times each week. The panel processes more than 8,000 licenses each year and handles disciplinary matters, such as underage drinking or fighting in bars.

Current board members include Chairman Sen. Juan Pichardo, Vice-Chair Charles Newton, Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan, Johanna Harris and Luis Peralta. Only Pichardo and Harris agreed to be interviewed for the review.

The board has faced heightened scrutiny ever since former House Speaker Gordon Fox admitted he accepted $52,500 in bribes from the owners of an East Side bar to help them obtain a liquor license while he was a member of the board in 2008. Fox is now serving a three-year term in federal prison.

Aside from the Fox incident, council members have become increasingly concerned by decisions made by the board as well as the large number of penalties issued by the board that have been overturned on appeal by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation.

The report suggests the chairman of the board – who is selected by the members with a gentle nudging from the sitting mayor – should come from a legal background. Pichardo, the current chairman, is not an attorney.

The report also recommends the city stop appointing elected officials to the board because it “creates an appearance of a conflict of interest (and potentially an actual conflict), which detracts from the impartiality and professionalism of the board.”

When it comes to discipline, the report states that “penalties must be administered in a fair and consistent manner” and suggests the board develop a set of guidelines that clearly lay out how it determines punishment for offenders.

“The problem with a lack of uniformity is that members of the public correctly perceive that certain entities are treated differently depending on the circumstances and personalities, which completely erodes public confidence in the system,” the report states.

Other recommendations include scheduling public hearings at night once or twice a month – all of the board’s current meetings are held at 1 p.m. – as well as formalizing the license application process, hiring a pre-hearing officer who can handle minor board matters and giving the ability to the board to discipline licensees and attorneys who do not conduct themselves appropriately during meetings. (During contentious hearings, it is not uncommon for shouting matches to occur.)

“The board of licenses is the place in local government where quality of life and economic vibrancy intersect,” Council President Luis Aponte said in a statement. “This report reinforces our message that the Providence business community needs greater predictability and accessibility within the licensing process, and the people of Providence need the board to operate consistently and hold businesses accountable when violations occur.”

The council is slated to formally accept the report at Thursday’s meeting. A non-binding resolution asking Mayor Jorge Elorza to implement the recommendations is also expected to be introduced, according to Aponte.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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