DOWNTOWN — The Bottled Blonde was supposed to face its final day of trial on Tuesday — but the bar was instead granted a brief reprieve after it was forced to fire its jailed attorney.
City hearings for the restaurant, which is facing the potential loss of its licenses, have dragged on for months. Hearing officer Bob Nolan has told Bottled Blonde attorneys at multiple hearings that the end must come soon, but those plans were dashed after the restaurant's attorney was jailed in Michigan on drug charges.
The Bottled Blonde, forced to fire attorney Tim Fitzgerald because of his incarceration, asked for a continuance to find a new lawyer last week. Nolan agreed after a tense back-and-forth, but told the restaurant it would need to prepare its new attorney because Tuesday would mark the final hearing.
But on Tuesday, the Bottled Blonde's new attorney asked for another continuance so the restaurant could have time to prepare its defense. The attorney said the restaurant's former lawyer, Fitzgerald, was unable to return to the case because he had been convicted.
The Berrien County State's Attorney's Office confirmed Fitzgerald had been convicted during a jury trial of two counts of delivery and manufacturing of marijuana and maintaining a drug house. He is awaiting sentencing.
Nolan agreed to the continuance this time, saying after consideration he thought he needed to provide more time for the Bottled Blonde to allow for due process. Nolan said he was "reluctantly" agreeing to delay the final trial day because he doesn't want any decision of his to be overturned for not giving the Bottled Blonde enough time to prepare.
"I wish it could have been taken care of" on Tuesday, Nolan told the attorneys and neighbors of the Bottled Blonde who'd gathered for what they thought would be the final hearing. "I apologize to all of you for any inconvenience I may have caused as a result of that."
The Bottled Blonde will now have a status hearing on Oct. 17 and a trial hearing on Oct. 24. Once the trial is done, Nolan will recommend a decision and commissioners will use the recommendation to decide what to do with the Bottled Blonde.
Even before the hearings began months ago, neighbors of the Bottled Blonde had complained about the restaurant and attended several community meetings organized by the city to try to find a solution to the problems between the restaurant and locals.
The city alleges Bottled Blonde violated its legal agreement of operation, which includes the promise that it would operate primarily as a restaurant with less than half of its sales coming from alcohol. The agreement also includes provisions that waiting patrons would be kept in a single-file line of no more than 25 people, that security would be provided and that an employee would clean up litter.
The hearings have been tense at times with sparks flying between Fitzgerald, Nolan and witnesses.
Several neighbors — who have said Bottled Blonde was acting as a club or bar, not a restaurant — testified against Bottled Blonde during two previous hearings. They said they'd found vomit, urine and litter in the area near the restaurant, had problems with large groups of people crowding the sidewalk outside Bottled Blonde and had called the police on people around the establishment.
Barbara Gressel, a deputy commissioner with the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, testified the restaurant's sales were dominated by liquor and not food — an alleged violation of the restaurant's agreement of operation.
The case and restaurant gained public attention after Bottled Blonde posted a lengthy dress code that banned Jordan gym shoes, leather, "obnoxious" prints and "odd-colored" pants, among many other items.