Technicality keeps Cactus Club in business in Portland

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PORTLAND — After more than a year in the courts, an Old Port nightclub owner successfully overturned the City Council’s 2009 denial of his liquor license.

But the ruling only applies to the Cactus Club’s license for 2008-2009, so the bar owner could find himself before the council twice before the end of the year to get licenses for the current year and next year.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on July 20 ruled that Portland took too much time providing written notification of the council’s February 2009 denial of a liquor license for the Fore Street venue, which police said was responsible for problems in the Old Port. 

By law, the city was required to take final action on the license request within 120 days of the application. The court determined final action not to be the council’s vote, but providing written notification to the bar owner, Thomas Manning.

While the council denial of the license occurred on the 106th day, the city didn’t provide written notice to Manning until March 13, or 129 days after the application was filed.

The high court’s ruling overturned a Maine District Court decision that upheld denials from both the city and the state Department of Public Safety’s Liquor Licensing Division.

City Attorney Gary Wood said he was very disappointed with the supreme court’s ruling, especially since Manning’s company, Allied Resources, was aware of the council’s vote to deny the license.

“This is probably the most frustrating case in my 35-year municipal career,” Wood said. “And it’s the most disappointing.”

The city considered the council’s vote the final action, because any delays would typically benefit the applicant, Wood said. Police were not concerned about taking a few extra days before providing written notice.

“So many people worked so hard and I feel like I let them down,” Wood said.

The council’s denial was based on information from police that the club was responsible for numerous breaches of the peace, disorderly conduct and other criminal activity.

Police said the club generated 52 calls for service from 2007-2008, and was also cited for serving a minor and endangering the safety of Old Port patrons.

The club’s attorney, David Turesky, disputed those allegations. He said the club could not be held accountable for calls for service on Fore Street outside the front of the bar, and claimed and the minor who was served was a 20-year-old police decoy who sneaked into the bar.

The Cactus Club has been allowed to operate for a year and a half under a provisional license while the matter was in court.

The high court faulted the city for not promptly notifying Manning, especially since it considered the club a threat to public safety.

“The process has failed the citizens of Portland,” according to the ruling.

Wood said the city is tightening up its licensing procedure as a result of the verdict and may start holding special meetings to consider controversial licenses, which can take several hours to complete.

He said the club will have to reapply for a liquor license for this year. If granted, that license will expire at the end of the year, forcing the club to apply in November for a 2011 license.

Wood said police are collecting relevant information from 2008-2009 to use when considering the clubs license request. In June 2008, a man was charged with shooting and beating an active-duty U.S. Marine outside the club.

“If their record is good, then we would issue (the license) administratively,” he said, noting that any city councilor could call for a public hearing.

Neither Police Chief James Craig nor Manning could not be reached for comment.

Manning’s Cactus Club troubles were preceded by brushes with police at his former establishments. In 1999, police raided the Manning-owned Metropolis on Forest Avenue, where they seized an assortment of illegal drugs.

In 2007, Manning pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct following his involvement in a fight with a man outside his Digger’s/Liquid Blue club on Fore Street.

The City Council eventually pulled the liquor license for Digger’s, a decision Manning appealed, but ultimately lost.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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The scene outside the Cactus Club on Fore Street in Portland last weekend. The state supreme court recently said the city had to renew the bar’s 2009 liquor license. But the club owner, Thomas Manning, must still apply for licenses for this year and next year.

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