Owner now contesting bar closing

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent 


A Kearny bar owner who consented to a 60-day closure after pleading guilty to violations of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) regulations has changed his mind.

John Hodnett, licensee for The Gin Mill, Brighton Ave. and Afton St., is asking the state Office of the Attorney General’s ABC Division to “stay’ the suspension, pending an appeal of the violations notice.

The governing body voted to implement the closure, that was to run from 2 a.m. June 5 to 2 a.m. Aug. 5, after a public hearing held May 27.

Hodnett pleaded no defense to these charges:

* allowing narcotics activity on the premise on Oct. 8, 2013;

* purchasing alcoholic beverages from a prohibited (nonlicensed) source, transporting alcoholic beverages without proper documents and conducting a licensed business in such a manner to become a nuisance, all on Dec. 21, 2013, and

* Failing to provide a copy of a license renewal application, failing to have a complete employee list available, failing to maintain invoices and having an unlicensed employee, all on Feb. 3, 2014.

At the May 27 hearing, Hodnett’s attorney James Madden appealed for leniency, noting that this was “the first time since 2008 that state ABC charges were brought against The Gin Mill.” Madden also mentioned that his client had hired a new manager “with 30 years’ experience” to help him keep order and comply with all applicable ABC regulations.

Municipal Prosecutor Theresa McGuire told the mayor and council that, following the letter of the law, the licensee could be hit with a total suspension of 127 days on all the charges combined, but if he agreed not to contest the charges, she’d recommend a 30-day suspension.

However, after a brief caucus, the governing body came back calling for a stiffer penalty – a 60-day suspension – and, after conferring with Madden, Hodnett said he’d accept that.

Until now.

Town Attorney Gregory Castano told the mayor and council that the suspension will now be held in abeyance until the state ABC holds a hearing on whether or not to grant a stay of the penalty – a process that could take up to a month or so. If the stay is granted, then the state would move to the next step: holding a hearing on the appeal – which probably wouldn’t happen until sometime in 2015.

In the meantime, The Gin Mill can remain open for business, Castano said.

Castano said that Kearny has filed legal papers with the state opposing the stay on the grounds that, after being presented with his options of accepting the suspension or challenging it, “[Hodnett] consulted with his attorney and pleaded guilty. Unless the ABC has rules that defy logic, he shouldn’t be allowed to withdraw his plea.”

Before all the legalities in the case get sorted out, Mayor Alberto Santos suggested there may be an opening for the town to attempt to bring out some means of controlling what goes on at the tavern.

Next month, Santos said, all bars in town are due to come up for local license renewals by the governing body and, he added, the law permits the town “to impose conditions on renewals of those licenses.” So, in the case of The Gin Mill, “we could require hiring of security personnel, monitoring of head counts of patrons, for example,” he said.

Time will tell.

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