JOHNSON CITY — Poor Richards Campus, 825 W. Walnut St., a popular Johnson City nightspot, will likely become a bit poorer now due to a 10-day suspension of its beer permit beginning at noon today.
The Johnson City Commission voted to accept permit holder Melvin Bentley’s “voluntary” offer of a 10-day suspension after reviewing police department data that shows a litany of recurring offenses at, or originating from, the bar including underage drinking, assault and indecent exposure. Poor Richards was shown to have produced 62 police reports so far this year, with the next highest being 34 reports from Electric Cowboy, 1805 N. Roan St., for the same period.
Bentley also is required to submit a plan to improve security and prevention measures at Poor Richards before the end of the 10-day period.
Should City Manager Pete Peterson and Police Chief John Lowry find Bentley’s plan acceptable, he would not have to appear before the commission again immediately. Because both Peterson and Lowry indicated they do not believe 10 days is enough time to come up with a workable solution, it is likely the commission will convene a special called meeting to address the matter, during which Bentley would likely face another suspension of up to 30 days.
Bentley’s permit surrender was, in reality, anything but voluntary as he vigorously pleaded with the commission Thursday night not to suspend his permit for 30 days or longer. Given only six days notice of the show cause hearing before the commission, Bentley adamantly contended he needed time to hire a lawyer and review the situation, which has been far worse than he had imagined.
“I thought we were doing a good job,” Bentley said. “I didn’t realize the situation was going south this quick.
“I take this seriously, it’s my livelihood.”
Bentley purchased the operation from Jenny Carmichael just more than a year ago. Though slight improvement in some areas has occurred, such as underage drinking arrests at Poor Richards dropping from 9.16 percent of the city total in 2006 to 8.62 percent in 2007, marked improvement will be necessary going forward, Mayor Phil Roe said.
“This has been a chronic problem for several years,” Roe said. “This is not something where the owner changed and things improved. In some cases it got worse.”
Lowry said he made it clear to Bentley early on that city officials expected improved conditions at the bar.
“We explained to him we’d had some concerns there and did not want to see it continue,” Lowry said. “It has continued.”
Bentley said his first reaction upon being notified of the show cause hearing was to consider making Poor Richards a “21 years old and up” establishment. While he would not fully commit to that action Thursday, commissioners indicated they were encouraged by this suggestion.
In addition, Bentley said the fact that most other bars in Johnson City have gone to “21 and up” formats has exacerbated problems that predate his taking over Poor Richards.
“The minors aren’t going to the other establishments because they can’t,” Bentley said, adding his belief that this circumstance skews the negative numbers associated with his business.
Both Roe and Vice Mayor Jane Myron pushed hard Thursday night for a 30-day suspension of Bentley’s permit. However, Commissioners Steve Darden, Marcy Walker and Jeff Banyas agreed Bentley should be afforded more time to hire an attorney and begin developing a plan, at the very least.
“I think six days to summon someone in here is too short,” Darden said. “That denies this gentleman the right to at least mount a defense.”
However, Darden did not mince words when telling Bentley what he should ultimately expect.
“Do you really think you’re going to escape some penalty?” Darden asked. “Frankly, you have to feel (any sort of discipline) financially in order to take it seriously.”
Though neither Bentley nor any of his servers have been caught selling alcohol to minors, city officials plan to use all means at their disposal to rectify what they perceive as a very serious problem at Poor Richards.
“The ability to serve beer in Johnson City is a privilege, not a right. It comes with a great deal of responsibility,” Peterson said. “Things need to be brought under control.
“(Poor Richards) hasn’t earned the right to continue selling beer.”
The commission’s action will have no effect on Poor Richards’ ability to sell liquor, as that permit is governed by the state.