After some nine hours or more of deliberations, testimony and video evidence presented over the course of two meetings this month, the Chelsea License Commission voted Tuesday night to suspend the liquor license of Plaza Mexico and roll back the restaurant’s hours – stopping short of shutting the establishment down as many believed might happen.
The License Commission agreed at the end of the evening Tuesday to suspend the liquor license for one week and to roll back Plaza Mexico’s hours to 11 p.m. indefinitely. Other licenses for TV, radio, juke box and pool table were left as is.
The Commission, however, did not agree to shut the restaurant down and strip it of its liquor license – as was done late last month with Palmas Restaurant and Lounge.
“The final decision was fair,” said Commissioner Roy Avellaneda. “One thing that came into play was they had a good camera system. To their credit, they did not hinder the investigations of the police department. That played a role. If they had not cooperated and the camera was not available, it would be a different scenario. But we still felt like there was a serious problem, specifically with the way the security company handled unruly patrons. The lack of calls to the police department was a concern. We definitely don’t want security put themselves in harm’s way or to harm the patrons.”
At issue was a lengthy investigation and numerous police reports – though several serious reports from 2015 were not included in the discussion – detailing drug dealing observed on video by patrons in the establishment. Those video recordings did end up being the basis for charges against one patron for drug dealing and a conviction against another.
Also at issue was an incident where an unruly customer who was intoxicated was physically thrown out of the bar by security, and then allegedly beaten in the street with what police believe was a collapsible baton. The security officer who allegedly used the baton was charged by police for a felony assault in 2014, but the status of the case was not immediately available – though an attorney from Plaza Mexico said it had been dismissed.
Police officials said they were happy with the decision, and indicated that this isn’t the first time Plaza Mexico has had suspensions or its hours rolled back.
“I would like to thank all of the members of the Licensing Commission for their continued commitment and dedication to the residents of Chelsea in imposing what they deemed to be fair and reasonable disciplinary sanctions based on the gravity of the infractions as sustained,” said Chief Brian Kyes. “We stand firmly committed to ensuring that any and all violations in any licensed establishment will be thoroughly documented, investigated and bought before the appropriate entity in order to ensure the continuing safety of our residents and other community members.”
Several Chelsea City Councillors, including Clifford Cunningham who represents the area and lives only seconds away from the bar, spoke for the closing of the establishment. Others who registered comments were Councillors Matt Frank and Councillor Dan Cortell.
“While it was not the result I had hoped for, I am grateful the Licensing Commission took action to punish Plaza Mexico’s management for their unacceptable lack of vigilance and unwillingness to cooperate with law enforcement,” Cunningham said after the decision. “As there were two other incidents that were not able to be discussed at this hearing, I strongly suspect this will not be the last time we see Plaza Mexico before the Licensing Commission to discuss disciplinary action.”
The two incidents referred to by Cunningham happened earlier this year, with one being that of a juvenile stabbed inside the restaurant. Police contend that Plaza Mexico was uncooperative in informing them of the incident, delaying needed treatment of the victim. Those incidents were pulled out of the discussion early on, but could come back at a later date.
At Tuesday’s continued hearing, most of the night was dedicated to Attorney Sam Vitali questioning Chelsea Police officers, questioning witnesses of the two major events, and also allowing the public to speak.
Vitali questioned Capt. Keith Houghton about a central piece of his defense, which was why the department was only now bringing up events from 2013 and 2014 despite continued renewals of licenses.
“Because I wanted a conviction on both (drug dealing cases) and the second suspect had defaulted several times in his case,” said Houghton. “I wanted an iron clad case against the bar. It’s not uncommon. We do investigations that take years.”
Unlike in the Las Palmas case, the general public was very much in support of the establishment, including residents of the elderly home 14 Bloomingdale, and direct abutters as well. There were no neighbors who came to speak against Plaza Mexico, and at least 20 neighbors and patrons spoke in favor of the establishment.
“I don’t know everything that’s going on, but there’s never been any trouble when I went there,” said Marie Lowsky of 14 Bloomingdale. “I’ve taken my girlfriends there and my church group in there. We go in there and it’s a very nice place. I wouldn’t take a church group there if there was that kind of trouble. All I know is I see nice people there. I don’t see any drug dealing going on and I feel safe in there.”
Many others spoke of how the ownership allows neighbors to park their vehicles in the parking lot, and how the ownership provides community parties and discounted breakfasts to the elderly.
Avellaneda said he believed the Commission felt it was a message to all establishments that they needed to be more watchful and more vigilant about what is going on in their places.
“On the drug transactions, we felt the owners had some responsibility,” he said. “Whether outside in the parking lot or in the establishment, they have to be more aware. It is their jurisdiction. It’s a head’s up to all establishments that you have to be aware and vigilant to what’s happening in your establishment and not just throw your hands up.”