SOUTH PORTLAND —The City Council on Tuesday night voted to abide by a court agreement and grant lodging licenses to two Main Street motels.
Last month, the council voted not to renew the licenses at Knights Inn and Maine Motel due to reports of alleged criminal activity. Police Chief Ed Googins recommended several conditions be placed on the license renewals, such as increased staff cooperation with police and installing surveillance cameras in the public areas of the motels. The attorney for the motels, David Lourie, challenged the conditions as unconstitutional, and the issue ended up in court.
At the meeting May 15, city councilors cited repeated reports of criminal activity at the two motels – including drug activity and sex trafficking – as the basis for the decision not to renew the licenses.
City Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett and David Lourie, the attorney representing Knights Inn owner Kantilal Patel and Maine Motel owner Ibrahim Dhamdachhawala, had a confidential judicial hearing with Superior Court Justice Roland Cole on June 14 and decided on six conditions for the owners had to follow if they wanted to stay open. Conditions include attending a police training program for motel proprietors on identifying criminal activity; maintaining video recording equipment in public areas of the motels; determining the identity of guests who rent a room; and reporting suspected illegal activity.
The council voted unanimously June 19 to accept the agreement and allow the license renewals.
Councilor Claude Morgan said Tuesday the council did not want to see the motels go out of business, but rather, make their businesses better. He said the process was worth the dialogue.
After the meeting, Lourie said his clients were “very relieved and happy,” and kept shaking his hand after the vote. Patel and Dhamdachhawala did not understand they were protected by the American legal system and constitution in this case, Lourie said.
Lourie said the motel owners spent about $15,000 in legal costs, and said Knights Inn may be dropped from the franchise, while Maine Motel may change its name to skirt the reputation that has stained the business following these proceedings.
“They did nothing wrong, in fact, they did everything right,” Lourie said of his clients and the requests from police in aiding investigations. “They don’t encourage or tolerate prostitution, and drug overdoses are not part of their business plan,” he told reporters after the meeting.
Lourie said he does not place the entire blame on the council, saying faulty ordinances make for faulty decisions. Lourie said he will dismiss the lawsuit filed against the city as a result of their decision, but he may refile the action if circumstances change.
Councilors may decide to have all lodging establishment abide by similar conditions.
Although Googins recommended placing the conditions on the businesses in May, councilors voted 5-2 not to renew a lodging license for Knights Inn at 634 Main St. and 7-0 not to renew the license of the Maine Motel, 606 Main St.
After the council denied the licenses in May, the businesses sued the city and a temporary restraining order was issued by Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren to hold off on any action by the city. Although the licenses expired June 1, the stay means the motels could continue to do business. Lourie said, however, that the negative attention has tarnished his clients’ reputation. Earlier this month Warren ordered the city not to enforce the City Council’s decision to deny the license renewals until he can review the city’s response to Lourie’s request for emergency injunctive relief.
Googins told councilors two prostitution investigations at the Knights Inn and an alleged overdose death at the Maine Motel violated a city ordinance dictating that disorderly conduct and disturbance of the peace are violations that can result in revocation or non-renewal of a license.
Police reports indicated the alleged incidents of sex trafficking and/or prostitution in June 2017 and January 2018 involved women who were either unable to speak English or were underage and listed as missing persons.
Lourie said previously the ordinance is being incorrectly applied because there have not been repeated incidents and his clients are not responsible for the misconduct of their patrons.
Lourie also said the decision by the council was intended to curry political favor with residents of the Thornton Heights neighborhood.
Patel, in the motion seeking injunctive relief filed May 25, said he and his family have operated the Knights Inn for 30 years, and even a temporary closure of the business would cause severe financial distress. He said they had no knowledge of the criminal activity allegedly taking place at the motel.
Lourie said motel employees are not vicariously responsible for their guests’ conduct and were cooperative with police when asked to identify people and to provide access to rooms.
David Lourie, the attorney representing the owners of two South Portland motels whose licenses were denied due to criminal activity, speaks with reporters June 19 after the City Council decided to grant the licenses.