By Seth Daniel
In what was a complete surprise to several observers and councillors at Monday night’s meeting, a block of five councillors rose up and nearly blocked the re-appointment of a long-time License Commission member, Ken Umemba.
Umemba was re-appointed in the end, on a 5-5 tie vote that was finally decided 24 hours later.
The move was what will likely be the first shot in a long battle for some councillors who want change on the License Commission – chiefly Councillor Roy Avellaneda, who previously service on Licensing before being elected to Council last year.
“I stand by my vote,” said Avellaneda. “I think we need someone on the board with restaurant and bar experience and we don’t have that. We have lost one appeal recently on Las Palmas at the state level and there is another appeal, on Plaza Mexico, that is awaiting a decision. The issues that are on that board still remain. I’m disappointed that despite my concerns I raised, the councillors decided to vote more on feelings and knowledge of the family over actual things that happen at the meetings. I’m just as concerned about the young man who was stabbed in Plaza Mexico and the young man who had his head cracked open and was pushed outside at Las Palmas. I just felt Ken Umemba wasn’t the right person to be on the board.”
The vote was seemingly a mundane re-appointment in what was a short and mundane meeting at the Council. However, as the roll call was read, suddenly there were several ‘no’ votes coming from members.
With Councillor Giovanni Recupero gone, there was an even number and so a 5-5 tie was the result. Those voting against Umemba were Matt Frank, Paul Murphy, Luis Tejada, Roy Avellaneda and President Dan Cortell.
At first, the ruling was that the 5-5 tie vote meant that Umemba was denied re-appointment, which sent a shockwave into the crowd – including his family members who were there to observe and speak on his behalf.
However, a day later it was determined that the City Charter actually has a special rule for appointments that end with a tie vote.
City Attorney Cheryl Watson Fisher said Section 4-2 of the Charter requires six votes to deny an appointment, which also means that a tie vote ends in an approval of any appointment.
“I’m in shock,” said Umemba’s wife, Joan Cromwell, after the vote. “I don’t know if it was some type of political situation. I don’t know if some councillors did their homework on his voting record and dedication to the board. It’s surprising. I thought the City was taking a positive step forward in terms of diversity and transparency. This is a step backward.”
Umemba is the only black member of the Commission, and has served on it for six years.
Councillor Matt Frank said he has been to meetings and he agrees with Avellaneda.
“It’s not personal,” he said. “I happen to think the Licensing Board needs to go in a different direction.”
Councillor Leo Robinson, who supported Umemba, said it was a bad scene.
“I think it’s unfortunate we have a person that has served on the Board for six year and those who voted against him never even had a conversation with him about it,” he said.
Umemba was present at a public meeting on Tuesday night and said he was happy to be back on the board.
Avellaneda said it’s only one of many changes he hopes to push on the Licensing Commission. He said he would advocate for several more changes in it’s membership.
“I would also advocate to take the ISD representative off the Commission and replace him with the City Attorney,” he said. “I know that requires a Charter Change, but I think we need to do that. The meetings aren’t recorded, the dates aren’t posted six months in advance, and you have business people waiting for months to get a simple license. That’s no way for the City to do business.”