Monday, August 19, 2013

Mansfield Board Fails in Enforcing Liquor Laws

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, August 19, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

            If Mansfield selectmen expect those who sell alcoholic beverages in town to be serious about not serving minors, the board must start demonstrating their own seriousness by imposing severe penalties on those who fail that responsibility.  Their recent actions in that regard have fallen just as short as the efforts of some of their licensees.

            Mansfield Police conducted compliance checks (often called “stings”) back in June.  Eight of the town’s licensees failed that check by selling liquor to two minors without checking their identification properly.  Eight establishments – that is a very high number to have fail this most basic responsibility that comes with this privilege.

            Especially when you consider the fact each business was warned the “sting” was coming weeks in advance.  The element of surprise was not a factor here.  These businesses knew a compliance check was imminent, and they still failed miserably at what is arguably the most important single job of a liquor license holder – making sure no minors are served alcohol.

            So what ended up being their punishment for this most serious and preventable violation? 

            Well, they were forced to accept an official police reprimand.  They got a serious scolding from selectmen.  They were required to provide additional training for all employees.  And they must pass up to two follow-up compliance checks.

            Wow – that should teach them, huh?  No messing around with Mansfield authorities is obviously the clear message here.  These businesses must be reeling under the terrible punishment handed out by the local licensing authority.  And in case there is any confusion – that’s sarcasm being expressed here.

            The reprimand is fine, and should go without saying.  The additional training for all employees is something that should be expected and required from all businesses serving alcohol even if they have no violations.  And having to pass at least two follow-up compliance checks?  That’s not a punishment.  It is what they were supposed to do in the first place, and what most of their competitors obviously have already done.

            The bottom line is these license holders got off easy - so easy it raises the question of whether selectmen are providing enough of a deterrent to prevent future offenses.

            In fairness to selectmen, they accepted plea agreements negotiated by police officials and recommended by town counsel.  Negotiating the plea does spare the town any possible appeals, including the expense of a possible hearing before the ABCC in Boston as well as legal fees.

            But Selectman Doug Annino had a good point before the vote when he said, “We’re cognizant of the alcohol problems we have in this town, but these violations were an easy thing to prevent.  Considering the seriousness of the offenses, I don’t think the recommendations go far enough.”

            He was right – they did not.  Annino and member George Dentino initially backed a proposal to issue a one-day suspension, but in the end the milder negotiated settlement was accepted with only Annino voting against it.

            Chairman Jess Apowitz told the businesses during their hearings, “If you’re here again, it’s not going to be a pretty sight.”  While all parties appeared to take that warning seriously, you have to wonder about its long-term effectiveness.  It rings hollow given the selectmen’s weak action.

            Aside from the message it sends liquor license holders, the selectmen’s decision also might have an effect on young people throughout the community.  Underage drinking – at places like the Comcast Center as well as neighborhood stores and restaurants – has been a major problem in town.  There have been deaths associated with minors abusing alcohol, and no one takes that problem lightly – especially each selectman.

            But actions speak louder than words.  It is possible a one-day suspension might have been harder to enforce.  It also might have hurt some of these businesses that are struggling right now in a difficult economy.  Everyone makes mistakes, and most of us deserve second chances.

            But when you accept a liquor license, you also accept the awesome responsibility that comes with it. 

            Selectmen Annino had the right idea.  These situations cried out for suspensions.  The punishments did not fit the crimes.  The message sent was the wrong one for everyone in the community.  

            The license holders were wrong, and the selectmen compounded their error. 

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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