Portland City Council postpones decision on Sangillo's liquor license
PORTLAND — The fate of Sangillo's, the 18 Hampshire St. bar police want to close, won't be decided until April 7 after city councilors on Monday postponed a vote on the bar's liquor license renewal.
Councilors at midnight decided they needed more time to consider the case laid out by Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and Assistant Chief Vern Malloch, and the defense of the bar presented by attorney Harry Center and bar manager Kathleen Sangillo.
The hearing, where city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta told councilors they "will act as judges,” lasted more than three hours and also included about 30 minutes of public comment, largely in defense of the bar.
Renewals of city liquor licenses, which are required along with state licenses, are routinely handled administratively by the city clerk's office. Only when police recommend against a renewal do councilors put the licenses to a vote.
According to Malloch, problems at Sangillo's came to a head Jan. 28 when a 24-year-old man was shot on the street after the bar had closed.
The shooting, reported at 1:21 a.m., left the victim paralyzed and remains under investigation. But Malloch said he knows where the trouble started.
"What we can tell you is all of the parties we have identified were patrons of Sangillo's and left Sangillo's at closing time that night,” he said.
Malloch also outlined 23 calls in the last year he said were related to the bar, involving people believed to be patrons who had left, or underage patrons allowed inside. The state is now looking into two citations against Sangillo's for allegedly serving an underage, undercover officer, and for allowing a 19-year-old to stay in the bar on the night of the shooting.
Malloch said the 19-year-old was seen drinking, but there is no proof it was an alcoholic beverage. He described him as being "heavily intoxicated” when police investigated the shooting.
Several calls regarding fights and disruptive behavior last summer were also cited by Malloch, and he and Sauschuck said bar manager Kathleen Sangillo's lack of oversight has contributed to a deterioration of conditions at Sangillo's and in the area outside the bar.
Center said the police recommendation is based on a lack of credible information and incidents beyond the control of bar managers.
“I have cringed every time I hear '23 calls,'” he said. Of the six or seven he said were directly related to the bar, the attorney said, the alleged violations for underage patrons had not been adjudicated and were inadmissible, and a report that someone was forced to buy drugs in the bar was not credible. He also said bar management called police on at least two occasions because patrons refused to leave.
Center also said Sangillo and her nephew, owner Dana Sangillo, are taking steps to eliminate problems by adding doormen, removing two brands of cognac believed to be favored by problem patrons, and generally cooperating with police.
The bar has never been cited for operating after hours, having illegal gaming devices, over-serving customers, or illegally selling beyond its license requirements, Center added.
When pressed by Councilor Cheryl Leeman, Malloch conceded the complaint of a forced drug sale inside the bar in January was not plausible.
“I wouldn't give it very much weight at all,” he said.
Sangillo's opened about 60 years ago, and was at one time located on India Street. Ownership has passed down through the family. Dana Sangillo took over ownership in 2009, according to city records.
The annual city license for Sangillo's expired Feb. 26, and the bar has remained open with a 30-day temporary license. The temporary license can be renewed until the council votes.
Kathleen Sangillo said she does not work nights at the bar, but monitors activities via 16 cameras in the bar. Arrangements are now being made to hire a night manager, and Sangillo said her doormen work more days and longer hours than the four hours each weekend night claimed by Malloch.
Her staff is also getting server training, she added.
“It is a safe place to go, it is a safe environment,” she said. "We continually do things to make the tavern a better place to be.”
Bar supporters said Sangillo's is a neighborhood tavern unfairly marked by police calls beyond its control and troubled by people coming back from the Old Port who are the true source of problems.
“You can't hold Sangillo's responsible for all these things, they are subjective,” said Margaret Lyons, who owns The Snug at 223 Congress St.
Christy McKinnon, the daughter of Kathleen Sangillo who has also tended bar at the tavern, said Sangillo's is an “authentic Portland experience. Truly representative of a neighborhood establishment.” She added that the bar keeps a book of banned patrons, and the experienced night staff knows how to prevent bad behavior.
Malloch and Sauschuck countered these claims by saying the last year has brought a proportionately large number of calls to a bar with a maximum capacity of 30 people. By contrast, they said, bars with a comparable number of police calls over the last year have capacity for six times as many customers.
As to trouble caused largely by people passing by the bar, Sauschuck said he did not believe "Hampshire Street is a throughway from the Old Port to anarchy on the East End. I can't get there in my own mind, it doesn't pass the straight face test.”
Hampshire Street resident Chris Korzen told councilors he has made calls to the police over the last year, even though he likes Sangillo's as a neighborhood bar. He arrived at the meeting hoping councilors would renew the license, but said he was ambivalent after hearing the Sangillos avoid responsibility for their patrons.
“If we can't draw the line at being good neighbors, where do we draw the line?” Korzen asked.
If the council votes against a new one-year liquor license, the decision can be appealed to the Maine Department of Public Safety, and eventually in Cumberland County Superior Court.