Bar brawl

Looking for logic in Atlanta's liquor licensing practices

According to the city of Atlanta, a liquor license is a privilege, not a right. And the Phoenix, a gay bar that has been open on Ponce de Leon Avenue for 17 years, is about to lose that privilege.

On Nov. 29, the city's License Review Board unanimously voted to recommend that Mayor Shirley Franklin revoke the Phoenix's liquor license. Franklin now has 90 days to act on the recommendation.

The board's decision delighted members of the Midtown Neighbors' Association, a group that has supported the city's case against the Phoenix. Neighbors of the Phoenix claim the bar has been a hotbed of drugs and prostitution.

But the Phoenix's management is crying foul. The bar's lawyer, Cary Wiggins, says the Phoenix has fallen victim to a "campaign of harassment" instigated by pushy neighborhood groups that want to further gentrify the Ponce corridor.

It's the Atlanta Police Department's policy that any time a bar is cited for pouring to minors or staying open after-hours, or for any drug or prostitution activity inside or just outside the establishment, the bar is automatically referred to the License Review Board. Other offenses can be considered by the board, too.

But some bars are more apt to end up before the board than others. Depending on how active local neighborhood groups are, certain bars get reported for license-revoking activity more frequently. Often, a volume of complaints from vociferous neighbors, regardless of the volume of illegal activity, is the impetus for a bar having to go before the board.

What's more, the board can revoke a license based on mere allegations of illegal activity — not convictions. The rules that apply in a court of law do not apply to License Review Board hearings, meaning hearsay and conjecture are fully admissible. And bar owners sometimes have no knowledge of allegations against them until days before they must defend their right to pour. That's because no warning letters are sent, not even in the case of an arrest occurring outside the bar.

The Phoenix now stands to become the third gay bar to lose its license in the past year-and-a-half. Longtime 24-hour nightclub Backstreet, and Metro Video Bar, both in Midtown, were shut down after lengthy licensing battles with the city.

Last week, the board recommended that the Phoenix's liquor license be revoked on the basis of two violations that occurred this spring. On March 27, the Phoenix's bartender was cited for operating half an hour past the city's mandated 3 a.m. curfew. Two weeks later, on April 12, undercover officers arrested two of the bar's male patrons for having oral sex in the bar.

According to License Review Board meeting minutes, five bar or restaurant owners have come before the board on charges of liquor law violations since March 15. One was the Phoenix. The board also recommended that the Library, a Georgia Tech bar known for wet T-shirt contests, lose its license after bartenders were caught selling alcohol to minors. Frequency, in Buckhead, was slapped with a 30-day suspension for allowing an underage person on the premises, while Midtown sports bar Stool Pigeons was fined $1,000 for staying open too late. The other two establishments were fined $2,000 for selling to minors.

A CL Open Records Act request to the Atlanta Police Department revealed that, of 10 local bars selected at random, two have been written up for liquor law violations so far this year. Only one of the clubs has appeared before the board, and its hearing was rescheduled. A third establishment was written up once for a weapons violation, twice for a narcotics violation, and six times for simple assault. That club has not yet come before the review board.

The same records request revealed that there have been 106 violations reported at Underground Atlanta since the beginning of the year, including 22 narcotics arrests, 18 simple assaults, six sex offenses, and three violations of liquor laws. None of the clubs at Underground have appeared before the board.

Wiggins says it's impossible to bring every potential liquor license violator before the board; therefore, there must be some other way of determining precedence.

"Let me put it this way," Wiggins says. "The city has 1,500 to 1,600 liquor licenses out there. If they were to drag every violator before the License Review Board, the board would never get anything done."

At the Phoenix's hearing, an undercover Atlanta vice officer testified that his division will not target bars or restaurants unless there is a public complaint first. That, Wiggins says, is exactly the problem.

Both the Midtown Neighbors' Association and the residents of Glen Iris Lofts played an active role in encouraging the city to shut down the Phoenix. So active, Wiggins claims, the process wasn't fair.

The Midtown Neighbors' Association actively pursues information on misbehaving local bars; its website has an automated response page for residents to lodge anonymous complaints about bars in an "effort to cultivate good neighbors with the Liquor License Holders in the area."

At the Phoenix's hearing, members of the Midtown Neighbors' Association sat together on the left-hand side of the room, while the Phoenix's staff and loyal customers sat on the right. The neighborhood group had chartered a bus to take its members and residents of Glen Iris Lofts, which are located behind the Phoenix, to City Hall in a show of support for the case against the Phoenix.

Some residents of Glen Iris Lofts told CL that they'd shot video of Phoenix patrons having sex on the bar's patio and dealing drugs through the bar's fence. (No residents testified before the board, however, and the video was not presented to the board.)

The board did hear from the management and staff of the Phoenix, who mentioned the problems the bar has had with drugs and prostitution, even though the city wasn't accusing the Phoenix of drug or prostitution violations.

After the hearing, members of the Midtown Neighbors' Association took their chartered bus uptown to celebrate the board's decision at upscale Asian restaurant Silk, where they grazed on hors d'oeuvres and sipped cocktails.

Midtown Neighbors' Association Treasurer Don Jones, standing at Silk's bar, defended his group's role in building a case against the Phoenix.

"I have nothing against bars," Jones said, between sips of Jack Daniel's on ice. "But you watch, if the Phoenix isn't there, you will see that [criminal] activity clear out. ... I'm not saying it is all the Phoenix's fault, but I think that the police will be very happy if that turns into another business."

GET INVOLVED: For more info on the city's License Review Board, visit www.atlantapd.org/index.asp?nav=LRB.