Bill would change state law to allow first selectmen to hold liquor permits
East Lyme - It was 1933, the end of Prohibition, when Connecticut passed a law stating that first selectmen and others in positions of power cannot hold liquor permits in the towns where they hold office.
Specifically, the law prohibits first selectmen who act as their town's police chief from holding liquor permits.
No one really knows how that law came to be. Why just first selectmen and not mayors, state representatives and senators or governors? The late William A. O'Neill, Connecticut's governor from 1980 to 1991, owned O'Neill's Taproom in East Hampton when he was in office.
State Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, speculated in an interview Tuesday that "some first selectman did something dumb, tried to cover it up."
Fast-forward 79 years, and the law finds one first selectman in the region in a strange, very particular predicament.
To avoid any problems when he first ran for first selectman in 2007, Paul Formica - who started Flanders Fish Market with his wife, Donna, in 1983- transferred his half of the restaurant to his wife. But she died of a heart attack two years later, and Formica became the executor of her estate, which included the corporation that owns the restaurant.
"I'm legally complying with the law, but I act as executor of the estate and manage the assets within the estate," Formica said Wednesday.
He says he isn't sure where to go from here. He loves his job, he says, and never expected to lose his wife so suddenly. His children are all in their 20s, but one is still a minor and all are either away at college or living in another state.
The restaurant corporation could remain in probate limbo. But, Formica said, "it's always cleaner to close out the probate."
At least two state representatives are now attempting to pry Formica free of the law's constraints - Rep. Wood and Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme. Each is separately asking the legislature's General Law Committee to raise a bill that would strike the section pertaining to first selectmen from the law.
It's a good year to try: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was, prior to the start of the new General Assembly session Wednesday, already proposing changing the law to allow package stores in Connecticut to sell alcohol on Sundays. Malloy's communications director, Andrew R. Doba, said the governor's proposal is specific to Sunday alcohol sales but that his office is "open to having a conversation" about the restriction on first selectmen.
In a short session, individual legislators are limited in the types of bills they can introduce, so Jutila has lobbied state Rep. Joseph Taborsak, D-Danbury, co-chairman of the General Law Committee, to put forth a bill that eliminates the restriction.
Jutila said Sec. 30-45 has been updated a couple of times, most recently in 1987, when members of a town's board of selectmen were removed from the list of people prohibited from holding a liquor permit.
"I think gradually, over the years, the legislature has looked back and said, OK, in 1933, right around the end of the Prohibition era, maybe there were some good reasons for doing this," Jutila said Tuesday. "But maybe in the 21st century, that's maybe a bit anachronistic."
The state now has protections in place to prevent abuses of power that it didn't have in 1933, both Jutila and Wood said. For instance, the Liquor Control Commission now controls liquor laws and permits at the state level. And where first selectmen in those days may have had just one constable or actually served as the chief of police, most towns today have police departments with their own governing structure.
Wood, who learned of Formica's situation when she met him through a mutual friend, said the law shouldn't single out first selectmen.
"It just seems, for parity, we should be consistent," Wood said. "You don't want to make it harder for people to run for first selectman because it's hard enough to get really good people to run. So there are other ways to protect the intent of that law."
JUST THE FACTS
Sec. 30-45 of the Connecticut state statutes:
The Department of Consumer Protection shall refuse permits for the sale of alcoholic liquor to the following persons: (1) Any state marshal, judicial marshal, judge of any court, prosecuting officer or member of any police force, (2) any first selectman holding office and acting as a chief of police in the town within which the permit premises are to be located, (3) a minor, and (4) any constable who performs criminal law enforcement duties and is considered a peace officer by town ordinance...
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