By LINDA G. RASTELLI
In a sweeping show of bipartisanship, the Red Bank Borough Council this evening voted not to renew the alcohol distribution license of Best Liquors, the packaged goods store on Leighton Avenue that last year became a hothouse of illegal activity and drew the enduring wrath of its neighbors.
The governing body voted 5-0 against the store on each of six charges that formed the basis of the license hearing. Councilman RJ Bifani, who had an unspecified potential conflict of interest, did not attend hearings in the matter.
Both store owner Sunny Sharma and his antagonists a group of homeowners living near the intersection of Leighton Ave. and Catherine Street were surprisingly subdued as the outcome of the case became clear.
The decision not to renew the license, which under normal circumstances would expire June 30, is the first step in what could prove to be a prolonged battle in the courts. Next, the council will draft an resolution to introduce Monday night, at its next regular meeting, calling for the permanent revocation of the store’s liquor license.
A special meeting to vote on the resolution was scheduled for 5p next Thursday. If the measure passes, it would become effective at 11:59p that night.
Store owner Sunny Sharma, however, is expected to appeal to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission. According to his lawyer, Samuel ‘Skip’ Reale Jr., a former deputy state attorney general, the store will be permitted to continue selling alcohol during the pendency of the appeal.
Before the council’s vote, Reale repeated his assertion that Sharma’s business was unfairly facing an economic death sentence.
“The death penalty for the business requires conduct that’s egregious,” Reale told the council before it voted. “Revocation is not really called for.”
Sharma had no comment after the decision. Reale said he was “not surprised by the outcome.”
The council, which met in a half-hour executive session starting at 4p, appeared to have designated freshman Councilman Michael DuPont to address each of the charges and lay out a rationale for why each should be sustained.
He called the store “an accident waiting to happen” and said he had heard no testimony indicating that the store had adopted policies to prevent future violations of laws covering the sale of alcohol to underage customers.
“It seems like the wild west,” DuPont said.
The only point of contention among the council members was whether to allow Sharma to submit two petitions he’d gathered signatures on, in which customers called for the store to remain open. Councilmembers DuPont, Grace Cangemi and Art Murphy voted to allow the submission; John Curley and Council President Sharon Lee voted no.
“I object to this being turned into a political charade,” Curley said.
The license ruling caps more then a year of complaints by the store’s neighbors about everything from noisy customers to littering to prostitution and brawling outside the store.
Over that time, Sharma and one of his employees were also hit with a half-dozen misdemeanor charges involving sales of alcohol to minors and other violations. Most of the cases ended with guilty pleas in municipal court.
But Sharma was also proactive, taking steps to deter loitering by removing pay phones and installing security lighting and video surveillance.
Residents, however, were unswayed from their position that the store simply does not belong among their homes, and pressed candidates for mayor and council last year to adopt their hard-line position that the store must go.
Thursday’s session was the third in the unusual administative hearing that had Borough Attorney Tom Hall assuming the role of prosecutor and the council sitting in as judge and jury.
Tonight’s meeting, held as usual in the council chambers, didn’t end until 6p, when the zoning board was scheduled to take over the room for its second bimonthly meeting.