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Liquor Authority Exec Admits Agency is 'Dysfunctional'

By Mathew Katz | January 20, 2012 9:46am
SLA Deputy CEO Michael Jones discussed his agency's 'mistakes' at a forum on nightlife in Hell's Kitchen on Jan. 19, 2012.
SLA Deputy CEO Michael Jones discussed his agency's 'mistakes' at a forum on nightlife in Hell's Kitchen on Jan. 19, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

HELL’S KITCHEN — Residents frustrated by the glut of new bars in Hell’s Kitchen got a surprising response from the State Liquor Authority Thursday night — they were right, and the agency wasn't doing its job.

“I'll tell you right now, a lot of mistakes are being made at my agency,” said Michael Jones, Deputy CEO at the agency.

“I've only been there two years. There was an independent law review commission report that came out when I started that basically said the agency is dysfunctional and can pose a threat to public health, safety, and welfare," he added.

Jones’ comments came at the first of several forums looking at the abundance of new nightlife in the Hell’s Kitchen area, hosted by State Senator Tom Duane and sponsored by a smorgasbord of other elected officials and community organizations.

“It’s a tough business, but it’s very important to the economy of our city,” said Duane. “We want to make sure it keeps going, but also that it coexists with neighborhoods.”

Residents at the forum submitted dozens of questions for the panel, which included Jones, Duane, and representatives from the Environmental Protection and Consumer Affairs departments, the NYPD, the Fire Department, and Community Board 4.

Most complained about bars staying open too late, causing too much noise, and drunken revelers urinating in the streets and creating havoc — all while the SLA stands by, allows bad establishments to stay open, and continues to grant liquor licenses even when Communtiy Board 4 asks them not to.

Several questions were directly related to the controversy surrounding Boxers, asking how the agency could consider giving a liquor license to the gay sports bar, which wants to open a location at 766 10th Ave., in a building that abuts a school yard.

That application is still pending.

Jones described an agency that is short-staffed, inefficient and unable to properly regulate the city’s nightlife industry with the mere six investigators it has to supervise thousands of bars and restaurants in the city, along with Westchester and Nassau counties.

“We really are not proactive,” he said. “We rely on other agencies.”

Jones said that was largely because of a huge disconnnect between the agency's priorities between New York City and upstate New York — where many towns want their bars all corralled into one area.

In another example of one of the agency’s “inefficiencies,” Jones described how the liquor license for Red Rooster ­— a restaurant across the street from the SLA’s Harlem offices — was sent to Albany before returning to Manhattan, taking a week to effectively travel a few hundred feet.

Jones also pointed out that the SLA can’t just take an establishment’s license away if its community complains about it — a full legal hearing needs to be held to respect the rights of a bar’s owner.

“We do need evidence to take someone’s license away,” he said. “You know, proven charges.”

According to representatives from the NYPD’s 10th and Midtown North precincts, Hell’s Kitchen might not be the den of sin that neighbors portray it as. Commanders of both precincts disagreed with a question from one resident that suggested police were “overwhelmed” by the new bars and clubs in the area.

“I can’t say we’re overwhelmed,”said Inspector Timothy Beaudette, commanding officer of the Midtown North Precinct. “I think we deal with the bar owners very effectively. I think we deal effectively with the crowds.”

In the 10th Precinct, nightlife-related crime is up, commanding officer Elisa Cokkinos said, but that’s mainly property crime, and club-related violence is down.

“I think overall the 10th Precinct has experienced some really good relationships [with nightlife operators],” she said. “Although we have clubs out there, the quality of life has definitely improved.”

Many residents in the audience disagreed, though, saying that while Thursday’s hearing was a good start, there needs to be more communication between the community, nightlife owners and the SLA.

“We sometimes feel like the disowned stepchild of the SLA,” said Steve Belida, co-chair of the Hell's Kitchen 50th-51st Street Block Association. 

“I was surprised the SLA owned up — I’ll applaud them for not candy coating it.”