The 2008-12 Montclair Township Council’s final meeting on June 19 characteristically ended late at night and with heated debate, leaving Township Manager Marc Dashield to declare the township’s eighth Faulkner Act-era council “a wild ride all the way to the end.”
The lengthy meeting ironically featured only one second-reading ordinance and eight resolutions, but the long-awaited hearing on renewing the liquor license on the Park Sports Bar on South Park Street caused the meeting to run over two and a half hours. The ordinance and seven resolutions had been passed in the first half hour, but the hearing – and the accompanying resolution to renew liquor licenses for the Park Sports Bar and other Montclair bars – took the rest of the council’s time, with charges and testimony about the bar’s patrons disturbing the peace of nearby apartment tenants with noise, lewd behavior, and drunkenness. In the end, the council conditionally approved the license renewal for the Park Sports Bar over Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville’s dissenting vote.
Township Attorney Ira Karasick laid out the parameters at the start to Park Sports Bar owner Jeff Melnikoff of Essex Fells. He told Melnikoff that if the council were inclined to deny his renewal application, he would have to have another hearing as required by law. With the license expiring on June 30 and the new council not meeting for awhile, Melnikoff’s only recourse would be to get a temporary license from the state.
Siena resident Nancy LeRoy, whose building is across Church Street from the bar, kicked off the hearing with a list of grievances. “The residents of Church and South Park Street have been complaining for years about the Park Sports Bar and the drunken, rowdy crowds that exit the bar and hang out on that corner partying, fighting, and screaming obscenities between midnight and 2:30 AM,” she said in a statement. She also hoped to get the township council to address twelve charges brought against Melnikoff by township prosecutor Kenneth Strait, including illegal alcohol sales and marijuana use, but Karasick said that was a separate issue from the liquor license renewal.
Following LeRoy’s statement, one resident after another complained about loud music emanating from the bar, drunken patrons wreaking havoc outside their apartments, and even sexual misconduct in the adjacent parking lot and drunk driving in the street. Kaili Baucum of 45 Church Street, for one, cited the cursing that made it difficult to have her nine-year-old niece over and the overall noise and loud music that rendered her studies for a philosophy doctorate impossible.
Baucum said she moved to Church Street because of the liveliness of the neighborhood, but he added that the bass thumping from the bar that constantly woke her up was a different matter. “When I had to study for my qualifying exams,” she said of her Ph.D. studies, “I considered renting a hotel room for fear that I would not be able to concentrate.”
When Melnikoff finally took the lectern, he was contrite about the situation, and he offered to make amends, such as lowering the music and communicating more with local residents for a solution. “I don’t know what to say, I feel bad for all these people,” he said. “I never knew it was like this.”
LeRoy had noted earlier that police had responded to 94 calls regarding disruption of the peace at Park Sports bar since January 2010, as opposed to thirteen such calls for all the other Montclair bars combined in the same period.
Jenifer Pagnotta-Zusi of Roseland, a bar employee, defended Melnikoff, saying that the bar had been at South Park Street before the Siena opened to tenants. She said that anyone who purchased a Siena apartment should have known there would be noise, just as she knew there would be heavy traffic on Passaic Avenue, the busy Roseland thoroughfare on which she lives, when she bought her own house.
The council was not short on suggestions for Melnikoff. Councilor-at-Large Roger Terry suggested that Melnikoff add more security officers and regulate the music, mostly rap music played by DJs after 10 P.M., with a decibel meter. First Ward Councilor Rich Murnick proposed tougher rules for cleanliness outside the bar in response to complaints of cigarette butts littering the sidewalk. And Baskerville doubted Melnikoff’s sincerity in the matter.
“When you said that you didn’t know about this, the noise problem, and you didn’t know about these things until recently, I don’t think that that’s sincere, because I certainly know. This council has known about it for awhile,” she said.
Third Ward Councilor Nick Lewis supported renewing the license with conditions, so long as the council didn’t dictate to Melnikoff how to run his business. But he added that the new council won’t be able to set conditions if they start from scratch and issue a new license without the previous one having been renewed, so the last meeting of the old council would be only time a license renewal with conditions could happen.
The council added one condition requiring a licensed security officer or an off-duty policeman from 10 P.M. to 2:30 A.M. every night the bar is open, and it was added to the resolution unanimously. But attempts to add more conditions, including noise regulations and cleanliness standards, got bogged down in cross-talking and failed in voice votes. The final roll call vote on the resolution to renew the license with the one condition was 6-1, with Baskerville voting no.
Earlier in the evening, an long-tabled ordinance requiring bicycle parking facilities, a pet cause of Mayor Jerry Fried, was considered for bringing up for a vote. The vote to remove it from the table failed 4-3, with Fried, Lewis, and Deputy Mayor Kathryn Weller-Demming voting yes.
Mayor Fried and the five departing councilors said their final goodbyes at the meeting’s end, and Lewis said he was happy to have served despite the difficulties. “I’ve learned a frustrating fact that some problems, you just can’t solve, at least on the municipal level,” he said. But, he added, he took pride that “Montclair is held up as a paragon of how a town should be” throughout New Jersey.