BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Amid accusations of being singled out as a business for increased police activity, the Bridgewater Township Council approved a renewed liquor license for the Green Knoll Grill – but cautioned that they will be keeping a watch on the number of calls to police made from the bar.
The council had initially only renewed the license until the end of July, pending a hearing with representatives of the Green Knoll Grill concerning increased police activity at the bar since January, and reports of fights.
“There was a question of increased police activity since January, and whether current requirements on the license are sufficient,” Councilman Matthew Moench said. “Rather than the council act in a vacuum without the opportunity the address the concerns, we decided to have you come before us to determine whether additional restrictions are needed or whether the grill is complying with restrictions, specifically with security.”
Pasquale Marago, attorney for the Green Knoll Grill, said his client doesn’t believe additional restrictions are necessary, and that the bar is complying with the current restrictions.
“We are not here to create bad feelings or anything, but at this point, we need to start making a record from the Green Knoll Grill perspective,” he said. “They feel they are being singled out.”
Marago said an analysis of calls from the bar led to an allegation that there is an increasing issue with police calls from the Green Knoll Grill.
“Most calls are made by security staff at the Green Knoll Grill,” he said. “This governing body required the security, and they complied.”
Marago said security staff at the bar were actually told by the police department to call officers in the event of any kind of incident.
“They reached out to police to have them train staff to respond in situations, and the takeaway was when in doubt or need, call police,” he said. “And then we get a situation where the municipal body does not renew the liquor license and makes them scramble to get a temporary one to make sure the liquor license remains active between then and when it is all resolved.”
Marago said a police officer was asked to speak to the security staff about handling situations in the bar, but it was acknowledged that the officer did the training on his own time and was not sent to the establishment by the township police department.
“Security is reacting and acting the same way they have been trained to do, and complying with restrictions made by the town on the liquor license,” Marago said. “To have the police department suggest a restriction to the liquor license is way outside the police’s jurisdiction, and offensive.”
Marago said it was suggested by the police department that alcohol not be allowed to be served between midnight and 2 a.m.
Bridgewater Township Police Chief Manny Caravela said that it actually is within their purview to make a suggestion because the department deals direction with the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, which regulates alcohol use in restaurants.
But it is up to the council whether to require that restriction on the liquor license.
Marago cited reports about other restaurants in the area, namely TGI Friday’s, which was included in the report given to council because of its proximity to the Green Knoll Grill. He said they had two calls in 2016 so far, and both of them were related to alcohol issues.
In 2015, the Green Knoll Grill had 29 total calls to the police department, but eight were for alarms going off, seven were related to motor vehicle accidents and others were related to noise complaints.
In 2016 so far, Marago said, the bar has had 16 calls for service, with nine falling into the categories of relating to alcohol issues. But the issues related to alcohol classifications, he said, are not fully laid out.
“When this body chooses not to renew a liquor license that is the single item for a business to remain in business and a family to continue to earn, there starts to be no question in Green Knoll Grill’s mind that it is being treated differently than other businesses,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people pass through the doors every year, and we’re talking about nine possibly alcohol-related incidences.”
“The Green Knoll Grill is currently on the verge of instructing security not to call Bridgewater police,” he added.
Marago said the security complaints stem not just from the restaurant, but from the entire parking lot and property. It is conceivable, he said, that a place like TGI Friday’s has just as many alcohol-related incidents, but many are not reported by the restaurant because they occur on the other side of the parking lot near other buildings at the Somerset Shopping Center.
“Green Knoll Grill handles everything on that property,” he said. “We don’t know if other properties handle things outside on the land.”
But council members and police disputed the claim that the Green Knoll Grill is being singled out.
“It has a long history of issues, and none of the others have repeated complaints from neighbors,” township attorney Bill Savo said. “If the council was interested in not renewing the license, you wouldn’t be here.”
Council president Filipe Pedroso said he was also taken aback by the comments.
“The facts we get presented to us do show that the Green Knoll Grill has more calls than any other facility, and are more serious in nature,” he said. “That’s the facts, we are not singling you out.”
“You’re jumping the gun making some serious accusations,” he added. “The reality is the Green Knoll Grill does have history.”
Marago said his client still feels they are being singled out for calling the police based on training they were given. He said the security personnel is planning to get restraint training as well to ensure they have a safe way to remove people who are posing a threat in the restaurant.
Still, Pedroso said, the council is concerned about the reports they have heard. In 2015, he said, the bar had 11 calls for service, and in 2016, they have already had 16 calls.
Some are serious, Pedroso said, with five for fights, three for loud music and one for vandalism.
“Compare that to TGI Friday’s that you reference that has two calls for service in the whole year,” he said.
The council questioned what the bar is planning to do to reduce the number of incidents overall.
“It’s the fact that these incidents are occurring as a result of the sale of alcoholic beverages,” Savo said. “How do you convince the council that business is being conducted to reduce the amount of incidents, not the amount of calls to the police?”
Marago said they would have no choice but to add additional security, but that they are not sure if they should always be calling the police if it is later held against them.
In addition, Marago said, they have purchased an identification scanner to make sure they can accurately see ids, and are no longer accepting anything other than a state id.
Councilman Howard Norgalis said he sees no control on cutting back or cutting off clients who appear to have had too much drink and who are becoming disruptive.
“I have not heard anything that would suggest they will control the real issue,” he said.
“When you look at your history, things are getting worse, not better,” Pedroso added. “You need to focus on what you can do in addition to what is being done to ameliorate the situation.”
Council members said that if they find the Green Knoll Grill is not making calls to the police when it is necessary, they will take back their support of a liquor license.
“If I find out that the Green Knoll Grill is calling police less and not calling when there is a legitimate reason, I will not ever in the future renew your liquor license,” he said. “If I hear credible information, I know I’m only one vote, but you’re on notice. I don’t want to hear that happening.”
Marago said his intention is that with increased training of security and bartenders, change in id checks and more, there are going to have to be less calls to the police.
“They are not crazy, they have liability,” he said. “I can assure that when the police are legitimately needed to respond, they will be called. The municipal board will realize that Green Knoll Grill, as it has always done, will continue to make adjustments to be a good neighbor.”
Council vice president Allen Kurdyla said he believes there should be additional training for the grill staff to recognize when someone has had too much to drink, and ensure they are not served more. He said he would also like to see reports more often from the bar and police department to analyze how things are going.
Council members reinforced that they would like to renew the license and see the business continue to be successful, but they did not appreciate the allegations against the town and police department, and are keeping a watch over the business.
“There are some serious allegations against the police department and governing body, and I can state with certainty that this council has never acted in any way to single out your client,” Pedroso said. “We are acting for the good of the township, and the Green Knoll Grill has more calls than any other establishment. We have an obligation to deal with that, and would be derelict if it didn’t address concerns.”
The council unanimously approved the liquor license for another year.