COUNCIL ‘NEUTRAL’ IN SHARMA SQUEEZE

Elected officials suddenly went into lips-zipped mode on the topic of Best Liquors last night, asking citizens to refrain from discussing or inquiring about the case of the controversial West Side retailer during the public portion of the borough council’s bimonthly meeting.

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The reason? To avoid any appearance that the council might have prejudged a hearing, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 6, on whether to revoke or suspend the store’s liquor license for a variety of alleged offenses that have had neighbors demanding a shutdown of the store for months.

That trial-like civil hearing on the status of the store’s liquor license will be prosecuted by Assistant Borough Attorney Thomas Hall, who takes his marching orders from the council. The council itself, several of whose members have openly discussed possible ways to terminate the store’s license, will rule on the matter.

Now, though, Mayor Ed McKenna says council members should stay mum on the subject to avoid giving the impression that the hearing won’t be fair, or give store owner of Sunny Sharma grounds for an appeal should the council rule against him.

“Like any judge, they have to remain neutral,” McKenna said of the council members last night. “At this point, it’s very important that we restrict any comment until the public hearing. We don’t want to in any way prejudice the public hearing.”

Toward that end, McKenna even directed citizens who wanted more information to step outside the council chambers with Hall during last night’s session.

About a half a dozen did so, including John and Krishna Tyler and John Ross, Leighton Avenue residents who have led the call for a Best Liquors shutdown. They claim the store is an attractive nuisance that is the root cause of a litany of problems at the Catherine Street corner, from noise and litter to prostitution and drug dealing.

“It may take a lot of steps to get this done,” Hall told the residents. He asked them to provide whatever non-anecdotal evidence they might have to support their case.

Among those who trailed Hall out into the lobby was Sharma. Hall told him he’d prefer to talk to Sharma’s lawyer directly, and Sharma departed.

Sharma has repeatedly claimed that he’s taking all possible steps to address the concerns of the store’s neighbors and wants an amicable resolution to the dispute.

In response to questions from redbankgreen, Hall explained that the hearing is on matters distinct from those now pending in municipal court. Sharma is charged with disorderly persons offenses for allegedly selling, or allowing to be sold, loose cigarettes and alcohol to minors. A court date is scheduled for late December on those allegations.

By contrast, the Dec. 6 matter, Hall said, reflects the council’s exercise of its right, as the local licensing authority, to review the status of the liquor license.

Asked why he wasn’t bringing the license case after the completion of the municipal court matters, Hall said it was the desire of the council to do it sooner.

“It would be preferable to do it after the adjudication of the other allegations,” he said, but council members have urged that the license matter be brought up as soon as possible.

And what about the council’s prior, open discussions of the case? Has there already been the appearance by council members that they’d made up their minds on the matter?

Last month, the council directed Hall’s superior, Borough Attorney Ken Pringle, to investigate various methods of addressing resident demands that the store be shut down. Pringle was to look into legal action and the possibility of a buyout or revocation of Sharma’s license.

Hall said he had not reviewed council transcripts for any signs that the case might appeared to have been prejudged.

“But I don’t believed it’s prejudiced at all at this point,” he said. “You do your best to give anybody a fair trial.”

The hearing is expected to last at least four hours, Hall told the council. Appeals for such matters go before the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, an arm of the Attorney General’s office.

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