Town takes liquor violation fight to Beacon Hill

By Richard Price | The Grafton News

The banners stretched outside the Village Dairy convenience store are confusing. “BEER & WINE ARE BACK!!!” the signs beckon. And they were. For a short while. Now, when a customer walks into the low slung baby blue neighborhood store on Main Street, they are greeted by a hand written sign: “Sorry. No wine-beer sale.”

It’s also been confusing for town officials who are the licensing authority for alcoholic beverages. After the local business was caught four times since 2005 by police stings for selling to a minor, Selectmen were fed up and unanimously voted to revoke their license in 2013. But the owner, Amjad Chaundhry, fought back pleading with the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) that the penalty was draconian and beyond the letter of the law. The state board agreed and after two appeals and a day in court, issued the license themselves.

Currently, the convenience store is back where they started. Grafton did not send the renewal application in the fall because, they argued, they did not issue it in the first place. The ABCC did. “We have not issued one so we cannot send out a renewal,” said Assistant Town Administrator Doug Willardson. Selectmen, during a Jan. 19 meeting, decided to take no action on the 2016 renewal, leaving the store in limbo until the ABCC can revisit the matter in an administrative appeal scheduled on June 1.

But now the battle between a small-business owner and the town is shifting from a legal to a political test thanks partly to the sympathetic words from Worcester Superior Court Associate Justice Dennis J. Curran. “Judge Curran found the Town’s arguments ‘compelling’ and called the ABCC’s decision ‘disturbing,’” the town wrote in a letter addressed to Rep. David Muradian (R-Grafton) and Sen. Michael O. Moore (D-Millbury). But the judge said he was constrained by the law and ruled in favor of the ABCC.

That day in court showed the limitations of Grafton’s licensing authority versus the state agency, hence their decision to work with Moore and Muradian seeking legislative change. “We respectfully request that our legislative delegation begin the process of amending the language of the Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 138 to give local Boards — not two unelected state employees — the final say over who should have the privilege of holding a license to sell alcohol within the borders of Towns,” the letter said.

During appeals, the ABCC ruled the Board of Selectmen should have suspended Village Dairy for 20 days rather than revoke the license in August 2013 despite failing their fourth sting operation in June. In 2005, Selectmen issued a warning; in 2007, a two-day suspension was enforced, and in 2009, a 10-day suspension was handed to the business.

Moore told The Grafton News that before a statewide initiative can be put in play, more data and facts need to be gathered. He and Muradian recently sent a letter to state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who oversees the agency. Moore said there might be a need for legislation or regulatory oversight. “It could be that the ABCC needs to revise their policies and procedures,” he said. But Moore said he is also a former Millbury Selectman and is sympathetic. “The Board of Selectmen are doing what is right for the community,” he said. “The town is enforcing, which they have a right to do.”

But Attorney David Rubin, representing Chaundhry and the convenience store, said the matter is more complicated. “The town has done everything it can to shut down Village Dairy,” Rubin said including not sending the renewal application. “They’re supposed to send an application to everyone who holds a license,” he said. “The town has singled out my client … for particularly harsh and draconian treatment. They are treating him differently than others.”

Rubin said Chaundhry is taking a financial hit by not being able to sell beer and wine. On top of that, he said, litigation is an additional financial burden. “They’re hoping he gets tired and goes away,” Rubin said.

To back up his claim that the town is not being even handed, Rubin pointed to a 2012 Selectmen meeting when the Post Office Pub, a popular watering hole in North Grafton, was caught in a police sting for the fourth time. The first was in 1994, then 1999, 2005 and finally in December 2011. According to the Feb. 7, 2012 minutes, Selectmen met with the business owner and Chief Normand Crepeau, Jr. before handing a 10-day suspension, three to serve and seven held abeyance unless there is another violation within one year.

Rubin speculated that the Selectmen at the time were easier on the pub because they frequented it. “We all eat at the Post Office Pub,” said Peter Adams in 2012 when he was the Board’s chair. The board also discussed that since the violations spanned over 17 years there should be a point where they “go back to zero.” But Crepeau said at the time that his recommendation was sticking to the letter of the law for a business that avoided a violation in seven years.

Rubin said the Village Dairy should be give the same consideration noting four straight years without a violation. “The Selectmen gave [the Post Office Pub owner] a slap on the wrist,” he said but cried it was a public safety issue with his client. “The town’s action is unprecedented,” he said. “There is no rational explanation.”

Rubin said he and his client are scheduled to appear with the town and the ABCC in a June 1 administrative appeal in the agency’s Boston office but might pursue court action in a Worcester court sooner. “If we prevail, we will get our license back sooner,” he said.