Licensing Issues Taking Center Stage at Council

By Seth Daniel

License Commission member Ken Umemba and other allies who backed his appointment fired back this week at Councillor Roy Avellaneda – a former License Commissioner – after he led an attempt to reject the re-appointment of Umemba last week.

Avellaneda said at the time it was one of many more changes he wanted to make due to concerns he developed while serving on the Commission.

That controversial action last week, which resulted in a 5-5 vote of the Council – which was enough to approve the re-appointment of Umemba, sparked controversy and Umemba said it was an unexpected attack.

“I refute the recent disingenuous and incendiary remarks that Councillor Roy Avellaneda espouses to defame and undermine the stellar record of the Chelsea Licensing Board and myself as a member,” wrote Umemba. “We do not have to search far to realize the progress the board has made in the past few years. A check of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) – decision’s website indicates how we have performed over these years. The Licensing Board literally made fewer trips to ABCC in Boston to appeal cases, than any other urban city in the Commonwealth. The board has demonstrated extreme patience and restraint in making fair and balanced decisions.

“Avellaneda lamented openly in the Chelsea Record newspaper that he was disappointed,” Umemba continued. “Despite the concerns he raised against me by name that ‘the councilors decided to vote more on feelings…over actual things that happen at the meetings,’ he fails flatly here to realize that those councillors aren’t easily cowed or influenced. They are independent-minded and saw through the fog of his innuendos to reject his concerted effort to tarnish a stellar record.”

Umemba pointed to the fact that Avellaneda served only two months ago with him and other commissioners on the very board he criticizes – saying he must have “amnesia” in now throwing his former colleagues under the bus.

Avellaneda said it was no such thing, and that he’s been calling for change since last November – after he was elected to Council, as he doesn’t believe the current Commission has been harsh enough on many of the bars that violate the licensing rules – especially those that frequently do so.

“I have been calling for this for awhile,” he said. “It’s nothing new. Maybe it’s new to him, but it’s not new. I have been working on this with the chief of police, the Law Department and the City Manager. I think I started voicing my concerns back in November. It’s not been done in a vacuum.”

A former License Commissioner, Bruce Black, who served with Avellaneda and Umemba, has also now weighed in on the matter. In a letter to the Council, he scourged those who voted against Umemba and called it politicizing the Board.

“The actions of the band of five council members (Avellaneda, Cortell, Frank, Tejada & Murphy) to ambush Ken Umemba’s re-appointment to the Licensing Commission was shameful, cloaked behind false arguments and hidden agendas,” he wrote. “The assault on the City Charter is equally alarming. The council should keep politics and personal ambition out of the boards and commissions. As for Ken Umemba, I served with him on the Licensing Commission.  While I don’t believe I agreed with any commission member 100% of the time, there was never any question with regard to Ken’s integrity, sincerity and desire to serve the City of Chelsea in a positive way…His ethics have never been in question; he has never stood to profit from any action.”

The ethics part of Black’s letter opened up a wider question that has been hinted at for some time, and that is the fact that Avellaneda’s real estate company listed the Las Palmas building for sale only days after Avellaneda and the Board voted to strip the restaurant/bar of its license.

“Within a week of the revocation vote, and before the decision to revoke was even written, Avellaneda was advertising himself as the listing agent for the sale of the Las Palmas property,” wrote Black. “Not only does that explain his attempt to reconsider the revocation in order to obtain a higher sale price, but also reeks of a major conflict of interest, and should be entirely unacceptable.”

Avellaneda said that was partially true, but it wasn’t what it seemed.

“The reality is I voted to take away a license,” he said. “It was a unanimous decision due to an incident. A few days later the owner came to my father’s bakery looking for me and asking me to put the building on the market. Why did she come to me? I don’t know. I do a lot of commercial sales in the city. That’s on record. Many people know that. In hindsight, was it the smartest move to accept a listing from someone I had just voted to take away a license from? No. It probably wasn’t from a standpoint of being above even the perception of doing something wrong. We took it off the market. I think they have it back up, but not with me.

“They’re going to start throwing stones now and I understand because I voted against Plaza Mexico,” he continued. “Leo Robinson already tried to take that to the Ethics Commission because that was one of his hangouts, Plaza Mexico.”

Umemba wrote that the Plaza Mexico decision was one in which the majority of the Board voted to suspend the restaurant and bar while Avellaneda voted to revoke the license. He said Avellaneda continues to march to that minority opinion.

“Avellaneda has continued to stoke and flame his minority opinion regarding the majority decision reached in that case,” he wrote. “His discountenance with the majority rejection of his insatiable draconian desire to ‘revoke’ instead of ‘suspend’ Plaza Mexico’s license highlights his abject lack of understanding of proper application of jurisprudence during his tenure at the Commission.”

Avellaneda disagreed and said the most recent License Commission, on Tuesday night, highlighted why he did not want Umemba back on the Board.

He said discussion was underway about Heller’s Liquors and three violations that they were being cited for, including selling to a minor, over serving and violating their promise not to sell “nips.” In that discussion, Avellaneda said Umemba’s comments were off base and he was talking about a two-week suspension when others were talking about six months.

“Everyone else is talking about six months and he’s talking about two weeks,” he said. “They’ve been before the board multiple times and stood accused of breaking three violations and he’s talking about two weeks. That’s why I didn’t want that re-appointment. This is an example of him being too lax on people. His questioning was also way off with Heller’s. Everyone talked about the three violations and he was talking about the attorney’s website. That’s ridiculous and that’s what I was talking about.”

Black countered that the Council went down a road where they made the process political.

“I write with a sense of disappointment, as it appears that this City Council has begun a process of ignoring the City Charter and injecting politics into Boards and Commissions,” he wrote. “In the process, you have done a great disservice to a respected and honorable member of our community, Kenneth Umemba, who has selflessly volunteered his time and efforts to contribute to the City of Chelsea.”

Avellaneda said it wasn’t political, but was part of the Council process. He also said he’ll stand by his vote and his campaign to clean up the establishments in the city.

“We are appointing judge and jury here,” he said. “That’s what the License Commission is. This was an opportunity to vote out a judge that I think is too lax, especially in light of the concerns in the community about the downtown area by individuals, businesses and parents.”

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