AYER - The Ayer selectmen and town liquor license holders met Monday night with an official from the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission (ABCC) for a Q&A on the ins- and outs- of licensing package stores, restaurants and more. ABCC investigator Brad Doyle provided an informational overview regarding the ABCC's application review process and its enforcement powers.
After a locality - and in Ayer's case, after the Board of Selectmen - approves a liquor license issuance or transfer, then the ABCC begins its review of an application. Criminal background and asset checks are performed on would-be shareholders and managers of the package store or restaurant.
"The reason for the second layer [of review] is there are a lot of ownership interests where someone will be an owner on paper but they won't really own the license," said Doyle.
Enforcement initiatives are "mainly undercover," said Doyle. While onsite, ABCC investigators enforce any and all violations of state law found - including but not limited to the Liquor Control Act (M.G.L. Ch. 138). For example, if an illegal slot machine is in use or other unlicensed gaming is afoot, "that falls under our auspices because it's a licensed premises," said Doyle. "That would be our jurisdiction."
Commonly, sting operations focus on whether an establishment is serving underage or intoxicated patrons. "That's a lot of what the enforcement side does," said Doyle.
Selectman Chair Jim Fay said he was intrigued to hear that a license is "local" in how it's issued, but still subject to state review. "What might cause disapproval at the state level if we approve it?" asked Fay.
The state may approve, disapprove or take no action on an application, explained Doyle. Applications are returned without action when they are incomplete.
The ABCC also checks with the DOR and Department of Unemployment Assistance to ensure that no monies are owed. "The state wants their money and they're not going to allow someone to benefit without getting that money," said Doyle. Denials that can "knock someone out of the box" may be based on felony or drug convictions, said Doyle.
The number of liquor licenses a town may issue is based on its population, said Doyle. As of last Friday, Doyle said the ABCC clocked the town's headcount at 7,427 residents. That means Ayer can issue up to 14 "all alcohol" annual licenses for restaurants; Ayer has issued eight. It also means Ayer an issue 5 "wine and malt" annual licenses; Ayer has issued one.
In terms of package stores allowed, Ayer may issue two "all alcohol" annual licenses. However, Ayer has three of them, with one license being grandfathered since the operation existed before the ABCC came into existence. Ayer may also have up to five annual "wine and malt" store licenses; Ayer has three licensed now.
Fay asked hypothetically what would happen if a town said "we don't want any more" and denies subsequent licenses even if the town's quota allows for the issuance of more licenses. "If someone comes into the local board and they're denied, they'd have the right to appeal to the state for that," said Doyle. Absent an appeal, Doyle said the commission wouldn't involve itself.
"On what grounds would someone appeal that and win?" asked Fay. Doyle cautioned "That's beyond my scope" but offered to obtain an answer for the selectmen.
In terms of whether or not a license has gone "inactive," Doyle said it's a decision that rests with the local licensing authority, or the selectmen. A key factor is whether the license holder "ceases to conduct" the licensed business. If its license is deemed inactive, an affected applicant could appeal to the ABCC.
That concern arose recently with a license attached to a Main Street business which went unused for several years. The license was sold to another entity that likewise didn't use the license within a year. However, the selectmen did not deem the license to be inactive, instead permitting its transfer to a third entity which plans to open a package store on Carlton Circle.
"So it sounds like, if the board didn't act, it [the license] lives as long as we don't cancel it?" asked Fay.
Not exactly, said Doyle. "The state could pursue it," said Doyle. Unless there's a concern over the town's quota, license revocation does not typically occur.
Selectman Gary Luca asked if the ABCC has a whistleblower program to report license violations. Yes, said Doyle, who stated the ABCC acts on complaints lodged by mail, email and voice mail. "We do address all complaints within our division," said Doyle.
Selectman Pauline Conley asked if a standing license holder may be issued another license, for example, for a one day special event. "That's something we've frequently issued," said Conley.
Doyle said the law prevents a restaurant license holder from also holding a license for a package store. Doyle promised to provide an answer on whether one day licenses are similarly restricted.
Conley asked if alcohol consumption and service must remain within the bounds of licensed premises. Generally yes, said Doyle. Expanding service onto adjacent land requires local and ABCC review, though not necessarily for one-day liquor licenses.
Doyle promised follow up answers as to whether it is legal to issue a series of one day licenses for a restaurant applicant already in the pipeline for a liquor license. The selectmen provided several weeks worth of one day licenses to help the businessman get up and running in the interim.
Doyle said the annual limit per entity is 30 one-day liquor licenses. Doyle agreed that such licenses are generally granted for special events or fundraisers and not for those "in the alcohol business... I don't want to give my opinion but that's what I've seen...It's not so much a bricks and mortar building but in a tent."
Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand asked hypothetically if the ABCC could penalize and fine a local licensing authority regarding mishandled applications. "I don't know that answer," said Doyle. "That would be nothing I'd be involved with."
One restaurant license holder asked if happy hour pricing will be held to 7-days if casinos are permitted and offer one-day special drink pricing. Doyle deferred, stating the law would need to be amended in this area if casino legislation materializes.
Doyle was asked if Massachusetts would ever structure itself as New Hampshire does, with state-run liquor stores. Doyle said Massachusetts is presently a three-tier system- with manufactures, wholesalers and distributors sitting on different rungs on the ladder. "States are either one or the other," said Doyle.
Doyle referred attendees to the ABCC's website - www.mass.gov/ABCC - for clarification on the commission's process. Fay promised that answers to questions that needed more research would be revisited at subsequent selectmen's meetings.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.