License commissioners and staff hear from attorney James Rafferty during a meeting public comment period April 26.

The License Commission hears from attorney James Rafferty during an April 26 meeting.

The License Commission’s approach to policy reform for restaurants that serve alcohol hasn’t just alarmed those businesses. Now the City Council has moved to put the process on hold and get a say in what happens.

“I want to make that clear – that there no changes until are met with,” Mayor E. Denise Simmons said Monday during a council conversation about sending a message to the commission. “Good, bad or indifferent, this is a departure from how we do business. In their effort to be proactive, they missed a tried-and-true process in Cambridge, which is to invite the community in.”

The commission has been conducting a fast-moving, comprehensive review of its rules starting April 26 that could – among many smaller changes – end the decades-old “cap” policy on how many restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol in Harvard Square, Central Square and other parts of the city; and decide whether alcohol-pouring licenses can still be broken into those that are “for value” (and can be sold, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars) or “no value” (and expire when a restaurant shuts down).

Alarmed response

Restaurateurs, lawyers and city business associations have responded with alarm, asking the commission to explain its motivations clearly, but the three-member commission has ducked several opportunities. An adjunct of the commission called the Cambridge Licensee Advisory Board, made up of restaurant owners who could be affected by the changes, has moved a meeting to Wednesday in response to the proposed changes, which a commission timeline says are to be finalized May 31.

On Monday councillors joined in, with Leland Cheung seeking an affirmation of an order he put through just over a year ago expressing concern about changes to liquor licensing that could hurt small-business owners. The original order, which was approved by all seven councillors voting April 13, 2015, asked that the commission be told of the council’s opposition to changes that put an “undue financial burden” on restaurateurs; the new order goes further, saying the commission “should not make any changes to the current regulations regarding liquor licenses which may potentially undermine City Council policy regarding community-building efforts and street activation.”

“There’s a concern the new policy might undercut council policy” to have active streets with as few empty storefronts as possible, filled with creative eateries where people can gather, Cheung said. But, more importantly, “everybody thinks restaurants make a ton of money, but the reality is, they don’t.” In his description last year, many “restaurant margins are so thin during their initial years that any [change] would jeopardize the viability of the new restaurants Cambridge residents can enjoy and negatively impact the ability of Cambridge to attract great and innovative new restaurants.” The changes the original order talked about, however, were specifically about fee increases proposed for “no-value” liquor licenses.

Confusion

The biggest proposed changes now are to bring city regulations in line with state law, according to commission documents that suggest the commission has been violating the law for decades.

But with no direct communication between commissioners and councillors, they seemed as confused by commission actions and motivations as everyone else, with councillor Nadeem Mazen bluntly saying Monday through the remnants of a cold, “the body of their rules is incomprehensible to the community … many people have been through the process and been confused” and that when changes are made it should be to make the rules more clear. But he wanted to ensure that what Cheung proposed didn’t prevent good changes from being made.

There was further confusion over what role the council played, with debate over whether it had to approve the changes brought forth by the commission. Signals from the commission itself have suggested that’s the case, though the mayor’s words were cautious enough to acknowledge uncertainty.

“Although I certainly respect and want to encourage changes and innovation, I want it done in a way that includes the community,” she said. “I hope [the commission] will take this as a signal that until there’s more process around some of the sweeping changes they are proposing, that they will desist until such time that there’s an opportunity to invite stakeholders into that process.” The commission has been taking public comment through email and at meetings, but there may be only one such opportunity left, May 24. A vote wouldn’t come before May 31, and could take longer.

“No legal requirement”

On Tuesday the commission hoped to hold a hearing with a half-hour of public comment on the changes, but the hearing hadn’t been advertised to the public within the legally required time, and it was called off at the last moment. Its chairwoman, Nicole Murati Ferrer, stayed in the meeting room to tell anyone who appeared of its cancellation – and said she had “no comment” on the changes or councillors’ positions.

But she said the commission’s changes were not to legislation, which the city’s form of government puts in the hands of the council, but to “regulations” that can be changed independently of the council.

The city’s Law Department agrees. “There’s no legal requirement that the License Commission submit its changes to the City Council for approval,” said Nancy Glowa, the city solicitor, citing powers granted to the commission by Chapter 138 of the state’s General Laws.

Reconsideration filed

On Monday, the council’s new order was sent for discussion by the council’s Public Safety Committee, led by Craig Kelley. But on Wednesday, councillor Jan Devereux called for reconsideration of that decision.

Because the next council meeting will be used entirely for an update on the city’s development master plan, called Envision Cambridge, the next chance for councillors to reconsider their position on the commission’s policy changes is May 23. Devereux said she planned to file a letter before then explaining why she called for a revote, but uncertainty shown during debate over Cheung’s order, which passed with amendments that drew their own debate, played a role.

“I think myself and some of the other councillors aren’t clear on what state law is and what our authority is,” Devereux said Friday.