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Liquor licensing screwup bites restaurants

For Glenn Powell, the Atlanta liquor license snafu of 2005 took its most absurd turn last week, when he was one of 37 restaurant, bar and convenience store operators forced to attend a six-hour licensing hearing at City Hall — the second such meeting for all concerned — because of a clerical error by city officials.

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Earlier this year, the owner of Agnes & Muriel's in Ansley Park was among perhaps hundreds of business owners across the city who were cited for failure to renew their liquor licenses. Like most others, Powell says he was blindsided by a change this year in the licensing procedure that had been poorly communicated by city officials.

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The problems came about after the city changed the procedure for renewing a liquor license to require that the license fee — $5,000 to sell liquor, $4,750 for beer and wine — accompany the renewal application. But critics say the city didn't do enough to alert business owners about the change, which has so far tripped up some of the top restaurants in the city, including Woodfire Grill, New York Prime and Brasserie Le Coze, as well as such landmark venues as the Fox Theatre and the Atlanta Botanical Garden (which the board decided not to fine, citing its nonprofit status).

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In late May, Powell and other restaurateurs were called before the city's License Review Board and told they'd have to pay a $1,000 fine for their mistakes. Other business owners, however, had been let off the hook after they pointed out they'd been cited with the wrong code section.

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But when Powell later showed up at City Hall with a huge wad of cash — "No one could tell me what form of payment I should use for my fine," he says — he was told the citation hadn't yet been processed and to check back.

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A few weeks later, Powell says, he got a call from an apologetic license inspector who told him the original citations the city sent to Agnes & Muriel's — and many other licensees — also contained the wrong code section. Therefore, Powell would need to appear again before the board.

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On Aug. 30, the owners and representatives of 15 restaurants, bars and clubs, as well as 22 package and convenience stores, again crowded into a cramped meeting room at City Hall so their cases could be reheard.

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Board Chairman Barney Simms explained that, to offset the inconvenience of making a second appearance, fines would be reduced from $1,000 to $500. But the savings are little consolation to Powell.

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"The irony is, we got fined because of our mistake," he says, "but their mistake ended up costing us more time."

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Jeff Goldworn, general manager of the Buckhead Club, which had a $2,000 fine reduced by half, says the city handled the situation poorly.

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"They could have just written us a letter telling us they were adjusting the fine, instead of having us come back down for another hearing," he says. "I'd like to think my time is more valuable than that."

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Michael Gerard, who owns the Brewhouse Cafe in Little Five, was called back downtown and hit with a $500 fine — months after being told he wouldn't have to pay. "It was just badly organized," he says.

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City attorney Roger Bhandari says that when Mayor Shirley Franklin saw that some businesses had been fined while others had gotten off on a technicality, she sent the whole mess back to the board, directing it to reissue the botched citations. All recommended actions by the board must be approved by the mayor.

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"The mayor is just trying to maintain some uniformity," Bhandari says. "And the city code requires a fair hearing after proper notice, so we couldn't have handled this with just a letter."

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Powell says city officials told him that more than 500 businesses had been cited, out of nearly 2,000 license holders, a number that Bhandari says he can't confirm.

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"If it's 500 businesses that made exactly the same mistake, that should tell you this didn't happen because of negligence," Powell says.



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