, Salem, MA

July 30, 2013

Our view: More information needed on Beverly's liquor license push

The Salem News

---- — News surfaced last week that Mayor William Scanlon has been working behind the scenes on a plan to push for nine new liquor licenses for the city of Beverly.

The mayor notes that the city’s restaurants bring in about $80 million a year, which translates into about $600,000 in meals taxes. That’s more than double what it was five years ago, he said.

Hoping to tap into a growing market, the mayor plans to ask the state for three all-alcohol restaurant liquor licenses, five beer-and-wine restaurant liquor licenses and one beer-and-wine package store license. At present, the city has 36 all-alcohol restaurant licenses and six beer-and-wine licenses.

The City Council must sign off on the plan before it goes to the state, which, thanks to outdated Prohibition-era laws, controls the number of liquor licenses each community can have.

Count us among those who say the state’s cities and towns should be the ones to decide how many liquor licenses they have and how those licenses should be managed. If there is a market for more restaurants that serve alcohol in Beverly, and the city can properly oversee the serving of liquor in those establishments, there’s no need for the state to get involved at all. And there’s plenty of evidence that a thriving restaurant industry contributes to a vibrant downtown.

However, more local control brings with it more local responsibility, and it’s up to the City Council to review the mayor’s short-on-details proposal openly and thoroughly. Right now, there are a lot of unanswered questions, chief among them:

Who gets these licenses? Scanlon told reporter Paul Leighton last week that one of the licenses would be set aside for the Larcom Theatre on Wallis Street, which rents out space for functions. He would not say who would get the other licenses. Residents deserve to know who is in line to benefit from the city’s push.

How much will the licenses cost? Liquor licenses can sell for as much as $80,000 in Beverly. Scanlon said the city has yet to determine a fee structure.

When will the public get to speak on the matter? Scanlon has called for a special meeting of the City Council on Aug. 5 to consider his plan. The mayor said he has talked to all members of the council and the licensing board individually to pitch his proposal. That’s certainly legal, but it’s also a classic maneuver used to avoid the state’s Open Meeting law, which requires that the people’s business be done openly and transparently and that minutes of meetings are recorded for posterity. That hasn’t happened here yet. It needs to happen going forward.

Adding nine liquor licenses to Beverly’s inventory could be a boon to the city’s economy. It’s up to the city’s leaders to make sure the process is done correctly.