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Bushwick Community Board Illegally Hides Liquor License Info, State Says

By Meredith Hoffman | February 22, 2013 8:41am

BUSHWICK — Bushwick's Community Board 4 has been withholding liquor license applications and decisions from the public illegally, state officials said.

The neighborhood's board is the only known community board in the city that refuses to tell residents what businesses have applied for liquor licenses, DNAinfo.com has learned.

According to New York State officials, the board's refusal to share information violates the Freedom of Information Law and undermines the whole purpose of public community boards.

"The purpose of the community board and of the Freedom of Information Law is to enable the public to know what the government is up to," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. "And here the recalcitrance precludes people within a relatively small community from knowing what's going on."

Bushwick's Community Board 4 has long followed the tradition of sharing liquor license applications only with board members, sources said, preventing residents from sharing their feedback about new and existing bars, restaurants and liquor stores.

But board members insisted that they withheld the information for "public safety" reasons, exempting them from the state law.

"It's not that we're trying to hide anything," said Barbara Smith, chairwoman of the board's public safety committee, which addresses liquor licenses, as well as residents' safety concerns. "When we work with people [applying for licenses], we're trying to help them... We don't want anyone to say or do anything that would make them lose their business."

At Board 4's meeting this week, Smith said that she did not want to threaten the livelihood of local business owners by broadcasting complaints about their establishments.

"Most of these people trying to have businesses live in Bushwick and are giving back to Bushwick," Smith said. "We don't want to say we are stopping them from having a livelihood." 

But to Freeman, the "public safety" argument for withholding such information was "ridiculous."

"The exception [to the law] deals with disclosures that would endanger the life or safety of an individual," he said, claiming there was no such threat from discussing liquor license applications. "It's ridiculous, especially in consideration of the fact that every other community board discloses the kind of information at issue here."

Freeman insisted that "local democracy can't work" when community boards shut out the public.

"We are all obliged to comply with the law," he said of the Freedom of Information Law. "And in my opinion, the law is clear."