Five years after New Orleans city officials ordered the TJ Quills college bar to help pay for private security patrols around Maple Street in order to remain open, the Alcohol Beverage Control board appears poised to release the bar from its $1,000 monthly payments.
In July 2011, the city attorney’s office brought TJ Quills before the Alcohol Control Board on allegations that it had allowed underage drinking, amid a crackdown on bars on that section of Maple Street initiated in part by City Councilwoman Susan Guidry amid complaints from neighbors about college students’ behavior there.
“There was lot of trouble in the Maple Street area with the manner in which bars were operating,” said assistant city attorney Dan McNamara on Tuesday. “It kind of turned into a mini-Bourbon Street with the crowds and all the happenings in the street going back and forth.”
The bar and the city negotiated a “consent judgment” by which TJ Quills could stay open under strict conditions, such as stronger policies to prevent alcohol sales to minors, no music audible outside the building, no loitering outside, go cups labeled with the bar logo to prevent littering. The bar also had to pay an initial fine of $2,000 to the city, then contribute $1,000 per month to the Maple Area Residents Inc. neighborhood group toward private-security patrols designed to curb unruly behavior.
The bar was sold to a new owner, Darian Blanchard, the following spring, and after a brief snafu in which he said he wasn’t informed of those conditions at the time of the sale, Blanchard later earned the praise of the alcohol board for his efforts to comply with them. “Although you were not the owner when this consent judgment was reached, you’ve made apparently every effort to comply,” board chair Rodney Seydel said in July 2012.
Rocco’s bar nearby was also under a similar requirement, but the wording of that agreement applied to a specific owner, not the business, McNamara said. When that owner left the business, Rocco’s payments ended, leaving TJ Quills the only bar paying for the security patrols.
After four years of good behavior and $52,000 in monthly payments for security, however, Blanchard believes he has fulfilled his obligation to the neighborhood and should be released from the fee, attorney Alex Lambert told the alcohol board.
“In the five years he has owned it, he has never been brought before this board,” Lambert said. “Respectfully, the reason we have brought this motion is because the monthly $1,000 fee was intended to address the bad conduct of the previous owner. It was a punitive measure. It appears that conduct is no longer an issue and did not occur during my client’s tenure as the owner of this bar.”
Blanchard is willing to enter into any other agreement with the city and neighborhood to ensure the goals of the consent decree remain in place, Lambert said.
“He has run a good and clean business for five years,” Lambert said.
The city attorney’s office countered that the agreement has been effective, and should not be changed. If Blanchard is upset that he didn’t know about the fee prior to buying the bar, that’s an issue between him and the former owner, McNamara said — not a reason to break the agreement with the neighbors.
“We have an agreement that has worked, and continued to work to this day,” McNamara said. “This has maintained the peace in that neighborhood, and to deviate from it would bring that situation back to life.”
Likewise, Councilwoman Guidry still believes the arrangement is beneficial to the neighborhood, and sent a staff member to oppose any change to it.
“The consent judgment is the result of years of hard work in order to get bars under control and curb underage drinking on Maple Street,” Gordon McLeod of Susan Guidry’s office told the board.
Dorothea Martin, a nearby neighbor of TJ Quills, said the security patrols have been important in improving the quality of life in the neighborhood, and urged the commissioners not to change it.
“You take that away from us, all I can is, I would hold each of you responsible for my sleepless nights and my gathering of trash,” Martin said. “Don’t bring us back.”
Tommy Milliner likened Maple Street before the consent judgment to the “Girls Gone Wild” series of racy videos.
“The agreement has worked because we haven’t had those kinds of problems,” Milliner said.
The board took two breaks in the meeting for offline discussion, drawing a complaint from Milliner — a former attorney for the city himself — that the board was breaking the state open meetings law.
“You have to have all your discussions on the record,” Milliner said. “I hope you were perhaps talking about your golf game or your grandchildren, but in fact if you were talking about the matter before you, that is a blatant violation of the open meetings law.”
Ultimately, the complaints by TJ Quills split the five alcohol commissioners present. Commissioner Bill Schultz offered a motion to strike the entire consent judgment, ending all sanctions on TJ Quills, and drew two comments in support, two against.
- Schultz: “I understand the frustration of the residents of this area. … [But] my gut tells me it’s unfair for this one business to carry the burden when there’s numerous other businesses benefiting from the $1,000 a month that this gentleman is putting out.”
- Robert Jenkins: “To have one business owner pay for the whole security detail is unfair and improper.”
- Jerry Speir: “This business was the business that was raided for underage drinking, et cetera. This business was the problem. This judgement should remain in effect.”
- Nyka Scott: “I wish the other bar owners and neighborhood businesses would participate, but the fact of the matter is that this consent judgment requires it unless the city and the bar owners agree otherwise, and that clearly hasn’t happened here.”
- Samuel Odom: “They all should share. Otherwise, this one business continues to take on the financial responsibility, and the others have no skin in the game.”
McNamara argued against Schultz’s motion on two grounds. First, he repeatedly pointed out that even TJ Quills had only asked to be relieved from the $1,000 per month contribution, and that Schultz’s motion to abandon the agreement entirely far exceeds what anyone else was asking for. Second, the consent judgment itself is a contract with its own instructions for how it should be modified, and to vote to throw it out would interfere with that contract, McNamara said.
With that, Jenkins asked that a decision be postponed for 30 days so the city and TJ Quills can renegotiate the agreement. The board voted unanimously in favor of deferral.
“In the spirit of cooperation, I would be happy to see if there is some other method in which we can resolve this situation without throwing out entire baby along with the bathwater — as proposed by Mr. Schultz, which I don’t think the permittee is asking for,” McNamara agreed.
The next hearing of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board is 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16.