By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — Town officials have seen enough from the Swampscott Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1240, and have opted to temporarily suspend the bar’s liquor license, after four violations in less than a year’s time.
The liquor license was suspended for 30 days, effective Jan. 27. The VFW can start serving alcohol again on Feb. 27, but only until 8 p.m., for another 30 days. Their bar usually remains open until 12 a.m. During that time period, all of the bartenders would be required to attend Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) training. Management is required to come before the Board of Selectmen again in April.
Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the VFW’s license had not been suspended previously, but after viewing their four infractions, the selectmen felt that something major had to happen. The infractions were presented during a disciplinary hearing last Wednesday, with Swampscott Police Chief Ronald Madigan and Detective Ted Delano present.
“We had to ensure the community would be safe,” Dreeben said.
Three of the infractions involved over-serving patrons, and the fourth involved serving alcohol to nonmembers of the club, when no members were present. The club’s license allows members to bring in guests, but people who aren’t members are not allowed to be there alone. During the fourth infraction, police were doing a routine alcohol compliance at the VFW, and determined that seven people were present at the bar, but there were no members there.
Two of the incidents, involving serving patrons who were intoxicated, resulted in car accidents, and subsequent arrests for OUI liquor. Both drivers told police they had been drinking at the VFW. One woman said she been served four tequilas with midori, and police were unable to perform a breathalyzer test due to her level of intoxication. The other driver’s alcohol test came back at twice the legal limit.
The third person who was over-served was arrested for disorderly conduct, after urinating in public, in front of the VFW. The man told police that he had three beers at the VFW post, but Delano said his blood alcohol level of .182 was not consistent with that number of drinks.
Two infractions occurred last March, one occurred in September and the fourth was in November.
Dreeben said before the four infractions that were presented last week, neighbors had come before the selectmen in 2014 with similar concerns, when the VFW’s liquor license was up for renewal. They reported unruly behavior and unsafe driving.
Madigan said after the first two infractions last March, representatives from the VFW were brought into the police department to address the incidents, but no further action was taken.
Laura Spathanas, vice-chair of the board, said public safety is important, including that of VFW customers, residents who may come by the area of the club, and the property nearby. She said some of the neighbors have been concerned about their property being damaged.
“You’ve met with the chief of police,” she said. “It seems like that wasn’t really a wake-up call as to really buckle down and make some serious changes.”
VFW finance officer George Fitzhenry said he doesn’t believe that the man caught urinating drank at the club. He thinks it was a man who had been barred from there, and was drinking elsewhere.
Fitzhenry said steps have been taken recently to ensure that people can’t just walk into the VFW. Two months ago, he said a key card system was installed, and only members have access. Three other organizations use the VFW, and are also considered members. Key card access shuts off after 11:30 p.m. The only people with 24-hour key card access are Fitzhenry, the bar manager and the custodian.
He said the bartenders are TIPS (training for intervention procedures) certified, so that they don’t overserve. The bartender who served the woman involved in the accident was in the process of TIPS alcohol certification, but the others involved in the infractions had completed their training.
“We’ll do whatever we can to make it safer,” Fitzhenry said. “We’ve taken some steps and we’ll take whatever other suggestions are made.”
Selectman Peter Spellios questioned why the manager wasn’t present and was told by Fitzhenry that he had some health issues. Spellios said there were lots of things that indicated there was vast disorganization going on at the VFW and very little accountability. He said the manager wasn’t managing, and it was unclear who was running the bar.
In addition to attending mandatory ABCC training, the selectmen required that the manager appear before the board in April, and that representatives submit in writing ways to remediate the problems identified during the hearing.
“There really needs to be a lot more presented to us when you come back,” Spellios said. “Respectfully, there was very little said tonight, I think, to give confidence that things are being run well.”
The VFW has the right to appeal the suspension to the ABCC. Calls to the VFW requesting a manager or a representative for comment went unreturned.
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.