NORWALK – In what could be considered as one of the most controversial votes in recent memory, the Norwalk City Council voted Tuesday to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision to effectively shut down a local liquor store due to numerous violations.
Representatives of Dhaka Liquor and Market, located at 10944 Imperial Highway, pleaded its case to council members in an effort to reverse a prior Planning Commission decision to revoke its conditional use permit and zone variance, which allowed the store to sell alcohol for off-site consumption.
Norwalk officials claimed that Dhaka has been cited for multiple violations over the last several years, including the sale of alcohol to minors, the illegal sale of single cigarettes, the illegal sale of single use beers and shots, and the installation of gambling machines and illegal gambling within the business.
These claims were backed by research and analysis from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), who reportedly conducted several decoy operations and confiscated the illegal vending machines.
Thomas Chapin, the attorney representing the business owner, accused the city of “selective prosecution.”
“I’ve been throughout the city of Norwalk. I used to work for LA County Health Department…I’ve seen these liquor stores, I’ve been in these liquor stores personally, and I’ve seen that fact that they’re all selling single use beers or they’re splitting up six-packs,” said Chapin. “For some reason, Dhaka Liquor has been singled out for that.”
Chapin also refuted claims that Dhaka had sold single cigarettes, claiming that “those are double packs.”
He also said that the slot machines had long since been removed.
“Nothing has been recent,” said Chapin. “The gambling machines were two years ago; they haven’t been in there.”
Chapin also claimed that attempts for the store owner to sell the store had been blocked as well.
Jayneshwar Gounder, the owner of Dhaka, refuted some of the city’s and ABC’s claims, insisting that the mistakes that he and his business had committed had been corrected.
He stopped short of directly calling the situation discrimination.
“I want to work with the Norwalk city; if you guys don’t want me, just let me sell the store,” said Gounder. “All the liquor stores are selling the single beers, the single shots, the cigarettes…why are you targeting me for?”
“Probably they don’t like my color – I’m dark – but my heart is clean.”
There were also several claims against the credibility and authenticity of the ABC report made by Chapin, Gounder, and others, who suggested that they had evidence refuting the ABC report and that there may be some unknown ulterior motive on behalf of ABC.
Councilmember Tony Ayala was quick to come to the defense of the government department.
“If we have a store owner that has sold liquor to minors, or had slot machines in there that they had been busted by ABC…you’re oversimplifying this thing; this is a lot more serious. We are responsible for the community and making sure the community is safe.”
“I’ve worked with ABC for a number of years...having worked with them I didn’t see that kind of stuff occur. I’m saying over a couple of decades, I’ve never seen that kind of behavior.”
Patrons of the store showed up in force to appeal to the compassion of the Council, describing the several ways how the owners had personally helped those in need. Several speakers plead to the Council to “give them a second chance.”
However, these please went for naught, and with a collective groan from the audience the Council voted 3-2 to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision, with Councilmembers Jennifer Perez, Leonard Shryock, and Mayor Margarito Rios in favor.
Perez addressed the crowd before voting, said that “this isn’t an easy position to be in.”
“Hearing your testimony, your passion, and just hearing about the business owners…I wish we could duplicate that feeling,” said Perez. “But there are reasons that have been presented to us that I have to vote yes.”
Rios echoed this feeling before casting her vote.
“As a council we are responsible for the entire community,” said Rios. “Yes, I commend the efforts that have been demonstrated by the business and property owner in their efforts to actually help the community; that’s very important.”
“However, I cannot ignore the fact that on more than one occasion, alcohol was sold to minors. We have to really put that into perspective. The fact that we allow this mess to continue knowing what we know is a big risk and liability because of the potential harm to the individual residents as the community as a whole.”