A number of local restaurant and tavern owners hoisted their glasses recently to toast the news that Burlington's license committee -- the body within City Council that oversees liquor licenses and outdoor entertainment permits -- is under new management. At the council's reorganization meeting two weeks ago, Councilor Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5) learned he wasn't being reappointed to chair the committee he's headed for the last six years. Councilor Kevin Curley (R-Ward 4), who chaired the committee in the mid-1990s, is replacing him.
Keogh had indicated recently that he was considering leaving the post anyway -- its time demands often conflicted with his other commitments as a state representative. Instead, Keogh will now chair the city's transportation committee.
The South End councilor has long been a controversial figure on the three-member body, and was known for his aggressive stance on nightclub noise, outdoor music and eating establishments that blur the line between restaurant and bar. Keogh's supporters credit him with cracking down on excessive late-night noise, vandalism, underage drinking and other drunken rowdiness that occurs downtown, especially on weekend nights.
But his critics, including many former and current liquor licensees in Burlington, accused Keogh of being unduly punitive in overseeing Burlington's restaurants and taverns. In recent months concerns had grown that his behavior was earning the Queen City a reputation as an unfriendly place to do business. In February, Keogh angered many members of the city's hospitality industry when he tried to push through major changes to the liquor-license requirements without seeking public input.
The change in leadership was welcome news to many proprietors, including Nancy Cunha, owner of Manhattan Pizza & Pub at the corner of Church and Main. "I can probably speak for everybody on our block that we're all breathing a sigh of relief. We feel like the reign of terror is over," says Cunha, whose recent legal clash with Keogh and the license committee has cost her nearly $10,000. "I don't think [Keogh] realized, in the way he was leveling punishments, how he was impacting livelihoods."
Curley says he's looking to build a smoother relationship with downtown businesses. "We're going to do whatever we can to recognize the folks who run good establishments. And we're going to look long and hard at the folks that aren't," Curley says. "My view on selling alcohol in the city of Burlington is that it's a privilege, not a right."
Curley's first act as committee chair was to grant an outdoor alcohol-consumption permit to Bill and Melissa Shahady of Wine Works, whose permit application for sidewalk seating had been stuck in limbo for nearly a year. Curley also reinstated Manhattan Pizza's outdoor seating permit, which was revoked last summer.