Billy’s on Grand fined $1,000 by St. Paul City Council for license violations – Twin Cities

The St. Paul City Council voted 7-0 this week to fine the proprietors of Billy’s on Grand $1,000 for a second series of license violations within a year, a penalty recommended by the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections and supported by a state administrative law judge.

The city attempted last May to fine the new proprietors of the longstanding Grand Avenue business but the managers appealed, and the question was elevated to the courts.

A hearing before state administrative law judge Jessica Palmer-Denig took place in August, and both sides filed written closing arguments in October. The racially-tinged debate over Billy’s has put special pressure on the city council to balance public safety concerns with commercial ones on a prominent business corridor that has suffered from some sizable business vacancies.

Billy’s new proprietors, who are Black, have claimed they’ve suffered excess scrutiny in a predominantly white neighborhood. Residents, in turn, have pointed to a documented uptick in police calls in the immediate area, including a bullet that flew through a resident’s window last June, spraying his legs with glass.

Judge’s recommendation

The judge, in her 30-page recommendation, found that the city had not proven one of its core accusations — that management had failed to prevent patrons from leaving the premises with alcoholic drinks on March 5. Staff had claimed that while four patrons were visible on security footage walking off a patio with cups and a canned beverage, it was unclear what kind of drinks were in them.

Palmer-Denig did find, however, that Billy’s staff had failed to provide a St. Paul Police officer with security camera footage related to a reported assault on March 13 and the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections with security footage related to a reported fight on March 18.

“Our law is very clear that (security video) needs to be accessible when requested, and it’s clear that did not occur,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker on Wednesday.

A.L. Brown, an attorney for the establishment on Wednesday, called the camera issue “a technical glitch” that was quickly corrected. The bar proprietors are working with the city and a strategic management consultant to present an updated business plan and brand refresh aimed in part at improving relations with the surrounding community.

The city had also accused the establishment more generally of “failing to maintain the licensed premises in a manner that provides a safe environment for patrons and the public,” a finding the judge concluded was supported by the growing number of police calls there.

A shoot-out on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue sent a bullet through the window glass of a condominium at Avon and Grand Avenue on June 18, 2022, spraying a resident’s legs with glass. Neighbor Bob Karls documented the damage with this photograph. He’s among residents who have laid blame on patrons taking bar conflicts outside of Billy’s on Grand at 857 Grand Ave., though some Grand Avenue residents have noted that gun crime has picked up nationally and the incident could not necessarily be traced back to the establishment. A police incident report shows St. Paul Police later recovered seven 9 millimeter and two .22 bullet casings. (Courtesy of Bob Karls)

Taken together, the violations of their various licenses — which include licenses for selling alcohol, a 2 a.m. closing, Sunday liquor sales, entertainment and a liquor license for an outdoor patio — justified the $1,000 penalty, Palmer-Denig wrote.

Billy’s management changes hands

The building at 857 Grand Ave. where Billy’s is located is owned by William Wengler of East Mall Associates, who operated the restaurant for 35 years. The current licenses were issued around June 2020 to RJMP Group, which is owned by Randall Johnson and Matthew Prendergast. RJMP, in turn, entered into a management agreement around April 2021 with the DWD Group, which took over operation of Billy’s on May 28, 2021.

The DWD group is owned in part by Wesley Spearman, who serves as the main contact between the business and the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections.

The city issued the establishment a $500 penalty on Feb. 1, 2022 for a group melee and two other incidents that took place in October and November the year prior, including an incident where a patron walked off the front patio with a beer in hand, and another where customers were spotted on security camera footage having sexual intercourse on a bench during a Halloween gathering. The footage was reviewed by St. Paul Police.

“During the time in which this behavior could be seen, the footage did not show any security personnel conducting sweeps or monitoring the patio in any way,” reads the judge’s findings.

Based on those incidents, the Department of Safety and Inspections added licensing conditions to Billy’s last March, including that the restaurant and bar check I.D.s., maintain clearly identifiable security personnel, conduct outdoor sweeps and that no new customers be allowed in 30 minutes before close whenever Billy’s is open past 11 p.m.

In May 2022, DSI issued a second violation notice in response to 128 calls for service in the area, of which 31 would be considered “quality of life” calls that a police officer concluded were related to Billy’s. Among them, they included a March 4 incident in which a person was stopped driving while under the influence of alcohol, a shooting in the area on March 5, a reported assault on March 13 and a reported fight on March 18.

Billy’s then appealed the $1,000 fine without success. In public comments to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, a neighbor recalled being sprayed with glass when a bullets flew in his window. Other residents pointed to public urination, late-night gunfire and speeding drivers.

Police calls, concerns about criticisms

The judge wrote she is “unable to definitively find that any particular incident (the police sergeant) reviewed was correctly attributed to” Billy’s, yet “averages (of) one police call every third day over the course of the year … is still an extremely high level of police involvement.” She noted that calls to Billy’s had nearly doubled from May 2021 to May 2022 compared to the year before.

She also noted that she received several comments from community members supportive of Billy’s efforts to run a safe establishment, though some said the bar had failed to do the same outside its doors.

Spearman and his fellow managers have maintained that certain neighbors have scapegoated the Black-owned business for any and all crime in the area, even when there was no clear connection to Billy’s, which has spent $16,000 monthly on security.

“They simply run the address, which is a mall … and attributed all of the calls at that particular mall, where there are other businesses, to Billy’s on Grand,” said Brown, the attorney representing Johnson and the DWD Group, addressing the city council on Wednesday. “You should not accept the administrative law judge’s recommendations.”

Some of Spearman’s concerns about racially-tinged criticisms from neighborhood residents were strongly echoed Wednesday by Council Members Nelsie Yang and Mitra Jalali, who noted that the record before the administrative law judge included some general impressions and concerns, instead of just proven code violations.

“There are comments from community members that are just about what they feel and what they think,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali. “We have to make this decision in an evidence-based way. … There are some things in here that I don’t think are considered evidence.”

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