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Terry Cowgill
At the Nov. 26 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard, Joe Domaney, whose family owns the liquor store that bears his last name, held up a stack of fake identification cards he said had been confiscated in the store from would-be underage buyers.

As selectboard mulls new alcohol policy, GB package store owners fail to stop additional licenses

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By Tuesday, Nov 27, 2018 News 9

Great Barrington — There hasn’t been this much commotion about alcohol in Great Barrington since the repeal of Prohibition. Or so it seemed last night as the selectboard tried to sort out its policy on liquor licenses and evaluate two new applicants for permits.

Robert Mellion, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Package Store Association, drove three hours to the Nov. 26 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard in order to explain state law on liquor licenses on behalf of his clients. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In the end, the board listened for an hour to merchants, members of the public and even a liquor lobbyist, Robert Mellion of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, who drove three hours to get to the meeting. Three board members disclosed the appearance of a conflict of interest but voted anyway, resulting in beer-and-wine licenses for the Berkshire Food Co-op and Rubiner’s Cheesemonger’s.

Furthermore, over vehement objections from current license holders, an identically divided board voted to abandon its current policy on the number of licenses until a new policy can be drawn up.

See video below of the discussion of a possible change in liquor license policy on the part of the Great Barrington Selectboard:

Both Ed Domaney and his son Joe, who own Domaney’s Liquors, cast the issue as a matter of public safety. As evidence of their vigilance, the younger Domaney held aloft a stack of fake identification cards the store had confiscated. Employees of new licensees such as Rubiner’s and the Co-op would not be as well trained to detect such fraud, they said.

Package store owner Ed Domaney. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Domaney further explained that, if he or his staff make a mistake, it could cost him his entire business, which his family has owned since 1973. But he urged the board to keep emotions out of its decision.

“My son has a bag of IDs we’ve confiscated,” Ed Domaney said. “It’s a bag of possible lives we’ve saved. We need you to take the personality out of this and we need to vote with your heads, not your hearts. You should be thinking with your heads for the safety of our children.”

Joe Aberdale, owner of Aberdale’s in Housatonic, said package store owners go to great expense to outfit their establishments with security equipment. Photo: Terry Cowgill

There were other package store owners and managers who spoke in opposition, including Ray Almori (Plaza Package) and Joe Aberdale (Aberdale’s in Housatonic). Other were present but did not speak: John Tracy (Gorham & Norton) and Joe Smegal (Cellarbration inside the Big Y).

Also speaking was Great Barrington resident David P. Ryel, who owns Berkshire Liquors in Lee, though he did not identify himself as a package store owner. While offering little in the way of evidence, Ryel said more licenses would have a negative effect on a wide range of economic data points.

“It will increase the cost of living; it will hurt business in this town,” Ryel said. “It will decrease the number of jobs in this town. It will further decrease the tax base, not to mention discourage investment.”

Great Barrington resident David P. Ryel, who owns Berkshire Liquors in Lee, said granting additional liquor licenses would inflict economic hardship on the town. Photo: Terry Cowgill

All the package store owners insisted they were not afraid of increased competition. But some observers were unconvinced.

Town moderator and zoning board of appeals member Michael Wise drew on his 15 years as a lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission as well as his work overseas with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the FTC, Wise gave advice on, among other things, competition policy.

“I can’t count the number of times I heard somebody come into my office from an industry and say, ‘Competition is a wonderful thing but it doesn’t work in my industry,'” Wise recalled.

Speaking at the Nov. 26 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting as both a private citizen and a former federal trade lawyer, Town Moderator Michael Wise said, “I can’t count the number of times I heard somebody come into my office from an industry and say, ‘Competition is a wonderful thing but it doesn’t work in my industry.'” Photo: Terry Cowgill

Wise said state law is one matter, but he questioned on philosophical grounds the idea of the town itself placing additional limits on the number of liquor licenses.

“This is exactly the kind of thing that the market will take care of,” Wise continued. “If it doesn’t work, somebody will leave. If there is an opportunity, somebody will enter. I would encourage the board to revisit and maybe remove any local limitation we have on the number of liquor licenses we have.”

Board Chairman Steve Bannon explained the history behind the current policy, which Selectman Ed Abrahams said wasn’t really much of a policy at all. He referred to a 2003 memo from former town manager Burke LaClair. Click here to read it, along with accompanying documents.

The state sets a quota for the total number of licenses based on year-round population. Census figures set Great Barrington at two all-alcohol licenses and five beer-and-wine licenses. Permits to serve alcohol in restaurants and bars are not included in that quota.

But the town currently has eight total licenses, only one of which is beer-and-wine only. According to Abrahams, this is because, many years ago, there were a few seasonal licenses that were converted to year-round.

At its Nov. 26 meeting, the Great Barrington Selectboard voted to abandon its current policy until it could come up with a better one. From left: Steve Bannon, Ed Abrahams, Dan Bailly, Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

At any rate, since the quota for beer-and-wine licenses is five and Great Barrington has only issued one, that leaves room for four more, which is why Rubiner’s and the Co-op felt emboldened to ask for one.

Still, Bannon said, he was advised by town counsel that, in evaluating applications for licenses, the board must consider whether the potential licensee would “serve the public need and protect the common good.” That, evidently, is why so many existing licensees came forward to warn of harm to the town if more members were let into their club.

LeClair had recommended to the board of selectmen, as it was known in those days, that it cap the number of licenses at the current level of eight. But that measure failed twice at town meeting, the second time by a margin of 218–62. So there is effectively no such constraint at the current time, other than the subjective judgment of the board on whether an applicant “serves the public need and protects the common good.”

So the board voted 3–2 to abandon its current policy until such time as it could come up with a better one. Voting for were Abrahams, Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Bannon and Dan Bailly voted to keep the current policy on the books.

See video below of the selectboard debating the current policy before voting to abandon it:

That split repeated itself twice over the course of the next hour as the licenses for Rubiner’s and the Co-op were narrowly approved. The three who voted to approve the licenses—Abrahams, Cooke and Burke—disclosed perceived conflicts.

Both Abrahams and Cooke were until a few hours before the meeting, members of the Co-op. Both withdrew their memberships before the vote. Abrahams said he has during the course of his membership received rebates from the Co-op. The largest was about $7, so it never occurred to him that there would be any financial conflict.

Bailly, who was clearly sympathetic to the package store owners, laughed and questioned the timing, suggesting the two selectmen might renew their memberships the next day.

“That would be illegal,” Abrahams replied.

Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemonger’s, explained his application for a beer-and-wine license at the Nov. 26 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Burke said she had filed a disclosure form with town clerk Marie Ryan that she had worked for Rubiner’s from 2011 to 2016. In addition, as general manager of the Great Barrington Farmers Market, there are grants from the Co-op that pass through the market, but they do not affect her employment, she said.

Bannon said the disclosures were “cleared by town counsel.”

As expected, both Matt Rubiner, who owns Rubiner’s, and Dan Seitz of the Co-op’s board, spoke in favor of expanding the number of licenses. Rubiner acknowledged that he had applied for a beer-and-license 14 years ago and was denied. He did not recall exactly why.

Both Rubiner and Seitz also made presentations for their beer-and-wine license applications. Click here to see the Rubiner’s documents and click here to see the Co-op’s. After more than an hour of discussion, both were approved by the same 3–2 vote.

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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ken Taub says:

    I am a second homeowner in Monterey and a regular customer at Domaney’s, Gorham & Norton, and Aberdale’s. I know Ed and Joe Domaney, John Tracy, and Joe Aberdale over the years of being their customer. I am not a customer of either the Co-op or Rubiners, so I guess one could claim I have a bias.
    I see no reason to have granted these additional licenses. The idea that there is insufficient competition in town is ridiculous. The Package stores in Great Barrington are extremely competitive on price; i did almost all of my purchases in Great Barrington even when I was a full time resident of New York City, because prices were better, selection was great, as was personal service. Both Ed Domaney and Joe Aberdale have gone to the trouble of ordering a specific wine or liquor for me with no obligation to buy. I have consistently found prices to be higher and selection poorer, in other Berkshire County retailers.
    Unlike the owners who spoke, my main concern is not sales to underage buyers; I have no reason to think that the merchants who got these licenses will be less diligent than the current owners. I do think, that there is such a thing as too much competition. Great Barrington is in a retail crises; stores for everyday folks are disappearing every day and not being replaced, although the cause is more likely related to the growth of internet sales than other brick and mortar stores.
    The Berkshire Co-op and Rubiners seem to have succeeded for years without selling alcoholic beverages.
    I would hate to think that cutting into the sales of places like Aberdale’s, Gorham & Norton, and Domaney’s might endanger their survival, but can anyone assure me that it can’t? Each of the store owners I have mentioned are wonderful people who are role models for the way retailers should operate. I support them, because this town is littered with the skeletons of well run, wonderful retail establishments that are no more. Just the possibility that this action endangers them saddens me.
    As an aside, as a practicing attorney for thirty seven years, the idea that members of the Berkshire Co-op have no conflict of interest is ridiculous; the fact they resigned their membership immediately before their vote is clear and convincing evidence of that fact.

    1. Bobby Houston says:

      I agree that the retail environment is tough in GB, and every effort should be made to support that crucial foundation of village life. The very timid remake of Railroad St (upcoming) is an example of a lost opportunity. Conversely, the bold commitment of the CoOp to a walkable downtown location is a gift. The internet will never replace community, but the community needs to support its village.

  2. Ed Abrahams says:

    The State’s conflict of interest law says that if there is a financial relationship, there is a conflict. The conflict isn’t an affinity, or a history of financial relationship. It’s simply that a board member stands to gain financially from a decision. The surprising part to me was that there is no minimum.

    I looked at my membership in the Co-op the same way I looked at my patronage of the liquor stores in town, as a customer. I did not consider myself an “owner”of the Coop anymore than I think of myself as an owner of Domeneys where I have shopped regularly for almost 20 years.

    When I called the Attorney General’s office I was told otherwise. As an “owner” of the Co-op it didn’t matter that I have received less than $20 over the life of my membership (all of which gets donated to a local charity). A financial relationship is a conflict because I would stand to gain, no matter how little. By ending my membership, that relationship no longer exists.

    The law doesn’t care if I am best friends with an applicant or with the applicant’s biggest competitor. The law even allows me to accept gifts of up to $50 if the gift isn’t directly tied to influencing my votes. (I’ve never been offered one and wouldn’t accept.)

    Some of the board members are customers of some of the applicants. Some of us are customers of the competitors of the applicants. Some if us grew up with some of them. Some if us serve on committees or volunteer with some of them. All of us fall into several of those categories. But when we vote, we put that aside and try to do what is best for the town.

    1. Ken Taub says:

      I would just ask you, and other Board members who voted in favor of the additional licenses, how exactly is the Great Barrington Community benefited from them?

      1. Tom Blauvelt says:

        Hi Ken, you should watch the broadcast on CTSB. There is a very good discussion about your question by one of the attorneys.

  3. Lauren says:

    Like Ken Taub, I am a loyal customer of the above-mentioned businesses, though the difference is I live here full time. I have experienced wonderful customer service (especially from Eddy and Joe Domaney). However, I still think the two business that have thankfully been granted their licenses should have the opportunity to grow their businesses in this way. They are already long standing, responsible businesses in our community. To assume that they would suddenly be irresponsibly serving minors is ludicrous. Though I suppose there could be a few, I don’t know of any under 21ers hanging around at Rubiners longing for a wine pairing to go with their cheese.

  4. Terry Cowgill says:

    Tom, no need to go to CTSB, unless that’s your preference. The videos are right here on this page courtesy of the Edge!

  5. Ted B. says:

    YA I guess GB is a tough for the retail environment ! I you seen ALL those for sae signs beginning at McD’s going towards town !? Motels , ye old Sears , old Smitty’s , I think the Donut shop is also for sale and a bunch more ! And yes….you can get a real good deal on a bowling alley ! 3.8 Million is it ?

    1. Laura C says:

      I guess we need to open more Pot Shops. There will be plenty of parking for customers, unlike the stores that want to open in the Main Street area.

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