Morristown’s council on Tuesday finally waved the white flag in its running battle to impose curfews on the Revolution bar.
The council also eased a curfew it had imposed as a condition for expanding the Tashmoo Restaurant & Bar— whose owners got slapped by the town in June for ignoring pandemic safety guidelines at an outdoor beer garden.
Additionally, council members discussed a zoning ordinance to define post-pandemic rules for establishments serving alcohol outdoors. And they sketched plans to close loopholes in a pay-to-play ordinance created in 2009 by a public referendum.
The virtual meeting was plagued by technical glitches that prompted the council to pause for about 20 minutes, when it appeared nobody was watching the webcast.
Two separate Zoom links–one for bar-related deliberations, the other for the regular council meeting–returned messages pointing to other meetings. Confusion was compounded by a late start caused by a lengthy executive session not open to the public. No video replay had been posted by the town as of Wednesday morning.
Would-be viewers missed a momentous vote.
For the first time since 2016, the council renewed the annual liquor license shared by the Iron Bar and Revolution without stipulating that Revolution must cease serving alcohol by 11 pm on weeknights and 11:30 pm on weekends. Other Morristown bars can serve alcohol until 2 am.
Responding to vociferous complaints from residents about late-night misbehavior from drunken bar patrons, the council had imposed those restrictions as conditions for allowing expansion of the Iron Bar’s license next door to Revolution on South Street.
Every year, like clockwork, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control overturned the ban, saying there were no liquor license violations at the Iron Bar or Revolution. Two courts sided with the state ABC.
“The past six years were a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, because of a vengeful mayor and council,” said Jimmy Cavanaugh, owner of the Iron Bar and Revolution. “They now can explain to a federal court why they insisted on this behavior.”
Cavanaugh is suing the town, alleging that Mayor Tim Dougherty has orchestrated efforts against his businesses since 2014 because the mayor allegedly was rebuffed as an investor in the Iron Bar. The mayor has called the civil charges a “work of fiction.”
Last year’s state appellate ruling left the council no choice but to lift the Revolution curfews, according to Council President Stefan Armington. Police have issued numerous tickets for offenses in the vicinity of downtown bars, he said, but linking them to any specific bar has proven vexing.
Going forward, the police and fire departments should provide council members with summarized findings about every bar prior to license renewal, and the council should receive more time to review such information prior to the Sept. 30 yearly renewal deadline, said Councilman Robert Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes the bars and nearby residences.
While the Revolution/Iron Bar renewal passed unanimously, Iannaccone cast the lone vote opposing the Tashmoo renewal.
Citing the pandemic, Tashmoo attorney Robert Williams persuaded the council to replace a midnight alcohol curfew with the standard 2 am time at Tashmoo’s extended restaurant and bar, still under construction on DeHart Street.
“We simply want the same opportunity to survive during this very difficult time” as other bars, Williams said. The 2 am alcohol closing pertains to indoor service; alcohol may not be taken onto the patio past 11 pm.
Both curfews were imposed by the council in 2016 as conditions for Tashmoo’s expansion of its liquor license to an adjacent, unconnected property. Tashmoo principal David Walsh suggested the midnight cutoff, and Williams praised the “reasonable hours” at the time.
“I don’t like it when people use our town,” Iannaccone said after voting against the license renewal on Tuesday.
The councilman noted that the special conditions had been meant to minimize noise and nuisances for apartment dwellers across the street, for condo owners on Community Place, and for the neighborhood. Those concerns “are all still there,” Iannaccone said.
Restricted hours could be reimposed for Tashmoo at next year’s license renewal if problems arise in the interim, said Armington, the council president.
Iannaccone and Armington both told Morristown Green there were no legal grounds to link Tashmoo’s renewal with its summer COVID-19 violations, which occurred at a different location.
More than 100 patrons, many without masks, crowded together to drink and listen to a live band, in defiance of town rules, at a beer garden Tashmoo hosted behind the Woman’s Club of Morristown on Community Place. The town revoked Tashmoo’s permit for outdoor service during the pandemic.
With little discussion, the council on Tuesday approved license renewals for the Horseshoe Tavern, the Laundromat, and South Street Social, bars owned by members of the Walsh family.
OUTDOOR DINING ORDINANCE?
The council also indicated it may push for a zoning ordinance defining hours for outdoor alcohol service on the premises of restaurants and bars. The town already has regulations limiting sidewalk dining to 11 pm.
Jeff Beers, owner of the Famished Frog on Washington Street, seeks permission to extend his liquor license to a patio behind the restaurant, where he has been serving customers under temporary approvals during the pandemic.
His expansion request got a frosty response last year from the council, which raised concerns about noise bothering residents of an apartment complex planned for Schuyler Place.
Beers had offered to limit his outdoor operations to 11 pm. But town lawyers cautioned that the state has taken a dim view of Morristown’s efforts to impose ad hoc conditions (see the Iron Bar/ Revolution above) in the absence of a town-wide ordinance.
The Stirling Tavern on South Street agreed last month to an 11 pm alcohol cutoff as a condition for expanding its liquor license to accommodate rooftop dining.
If the council and planning board come up with a measure limiting all outdoor alcohol service to 11 pm, other establishments could be affected. The Town Bar + Kitchen on Elm Street and the Dublin Pub on Pine Street have outdoor spaces that operate beyond 11, Armington said.
The town’s pay-to-play ordinance prohibits local campaign contributions from contractors with public contracts exceeding $17,000.
To further reduce perceptions of conflicts of interest, a council subcommittee wants to bar donations from persons involved in redevelopment projects.
Newark and Hoboken have such measures, and the nonprofit Citizens Campaign has crafted a model ordinance that Morristown could use, said Armington, who has been studying the matter since January on a committee with Iannaccone and Council Vice President Toshiba Foster.
An amendment to the town’s pay-to-play law could be introduced at the council’s Sept. 22, 2020, meeting, Armington said.
He also favors prohibiting contributions from liquor license holders and non-union town employees to elected officials and local political parties, but he said that might pose thorny First Amendment issues.
But even the most stringent local laws may not protect against “straw donors”– contributions illegally funneled through third parties. A state investigation has implicated several area officials and former candidates, including the mayor’s wife, who has denied the allegations.
“You can’t control that,” Armington said of straw donors. “That’s up to the Attorney General.”