The City Council declared Brothers Liquors in south Berkeley a public nuisance and then revoked its operating license Tuesday after hearing contradicting public comments that told a “tale of two Brothers.”
The store’s manager, Monsoor Ghanem, was appealing an Oct. 25 Zoning Adjustments Board decision that imposed 11 operating conditions on the business because of repeated complaints of drug dealing, excessive noise, public drunkenness and prostitution on or near its Shattuck Avenue parking lot.
According to Ghanem’s appeal, two of the operating conditions, mandatory 9 p.m. closing time and the posting of a full-time security guard during all hours of operation, were too economically punitive and would cause Brothers Liquors to go out of business.
Three courses of action had been available to the council: removing or modifying the 11 conditions; enforcing them as is; or closing the store by revoking its operating license.
The council heard from more than 40 neighbors, former neighbors and customers both in support and in opposition to the liquor store located at 3039 Shattuck Ave. The council also heard a presentation by Police Lt. Allen Yuen, who said there had been 19 felony arrests on or near the store in a one-year period.
After closing the hearing, the council broke from its usual practice of waiting until the following council meeting to take action and revoked the store’s license by a vote of 8 -1. Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek, who said she did not feel prepared to vote on the issue, was the sole vote in opposition.
Mayor Shirley Dean had little doubt about the issue.
“It seems to me we ought to vote tonight and we ought to vote to revoke,” Dean said. “It appears the owner has no intention of calming things down and that really makes me mad.”
Ghanem, who operates the store for his father, Abdo Aldafari, would say only that he was shocked at the council’s decision.
Ghanem’s attorney Thomas Swihart said his client intends to challenge the revocation in court.
“The decision is really bizarre,” he said. “It’s like they’ve put us in a better position by revoking the license, because this will never hold up in court.”
Once the council confirms the revocation on Jan. 22, Ghanem will have the option of appealing the decision in court or accepting the city’s order to close the store. According to Current Planning Manager Mark Rhoades, if the council decision is challenged in court, the store could stay open during its normal operating hours for as long as two years while the appeal works its way through the court system.
The council heard conflicting comments from the public about the store’s impact on the neighborhood.
Supporters described Ghanem as a hardworking benevolent store manager always considerate of his customers and the neighborhood. They also said that neighbors had exaggerated problems, claiming that they never see drug dealers, prostitutes or anyone else hanging out in front of the store.
“I live three houses away from Brothers and I’ve never had any problem at the store,” said Theresa Heckathorne adding that “The only time I lose any sleep is when there’s a band playing at the Starry Plough.”
The Starry Plough Pub, located at 1301 Shattuck Ave., is a block away from Brothers Liquors
But the majority of speakers described Brothers Liquors as a hub for drug dealers, drunks, prostitutes and vandals who have had the neighborhood under siege for years. They also described Ghanem as generally hostile to neighbors and some even admitted they are afraid of him.
“Mr. Ghanem has a long history of hostile and aggressive behavior,” said neighbor Dean Smith who said he has lived on the same block as the store for 11 years. “There has been a pattern of threats and implied violence since 1992. We are concerned for our safety and our property.”
After the public hearing, Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he was concerned that revoking the store’s license, would not hold up in court because of the conflicting testimony.
“Tonight we heard a tale of two Brothers,” said Worthington, who then asked City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque: “Is the evidence so dramatic and irreconcilable that we can shut the store down?”
Albuquerque told the council there was enough evidence to close the store. “We have enough of a record here to do the entire range of remedies, including revocation,” she said.
Albuquerque did advise the council to ask Ghanem’s attorney if his client would be willing to accept the 11 ZAB-imposed conditions prior to voting.
Swihart said his client was not willing to accept the conditions. “They are too extreme and would, in effect, shut down the store,” he said.