The License Commission installed a bank-style window, security mirrors and cameras in September, shortly after removing a public notice of “file-viewing hours” from the wall seen at left. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The License Commission has quietly eliminated some public hearings without notice or explanation, giving residents less opportunity to know about licensing for new restaurants, weigh in publicly or come face to face with business owners.

The change moves some decisions for food-only “common victualler” licenses out of a public testimony category and into the part of the agenda set aside for administrative matters; in that part of the agenda, commissioners will take written statements from the public and the business owner need never appear to answer concerns or questions. Licenses for serving alcohol remain open for public testimony for now, although it is unknown why or how common victualler licenses have been relocated.

An analysis of agendas back to Jan. 1, 2018, shows the commission handling 27 new food-only licenses, all taking public testimony.

License Commission instructions for “common victualler” licenses don’t explain that some are handled outside of public hearings.

That changes Nov. 8, 2019, with licensing at Anthony’s Pizza on Gore Street, where the business had already been open for some four years, is handled administratively; it happens again Jan. 29 for a change in ownership of the existing All-Star Pizza Bar in Inman Square. At the most recent hearings, held Feb. 12, there are two – one for a change at the existing All-Star Sandwich shop in Inman Square.

But the final item? It’s for a brand-new restaurant called Mediterranean Grill, planning to open in the former Fiorella’s Express space at 2401 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge, empty since March. No testimony was taken, and commissioners did not ask whether there were any members of the public in favor of the license or opposed.

Asked about how the commission handled the application, executive director Elizabeth Lint said businesses applying for just a CV do “not always” get a public hearing. In response to whether this was a new policy, she said, “No.”

But the commission’s online guide to applying for a common victualler license as of Thursday still does not seem to allow or account for any process except a public hearing, saying:

“The applicant must attend the hearing, unless informed otherwise through the hearing date letter. At the hearing, testimony from the applicant, proposed manager of record and any other necessary party will be taken. Members of the public may also testify at the hearing. Persons in support or opposition to the application may have an opportunity to speak at the hearing.”

It is unclear how the commission knows which applicants it can approve without questions.

Asked Feb. 12 via email how long the administrative-option policy has been in place and what process the commission went through to establish the policy – and when the website would be updated to reflect the change – Lint did not respond. The City Manager’s Office was asked for comment late Wednesday, but Lee Gianetti, the city’s director of communications and community relations, said more time was needed to become familiar with the issue.

For city councillor Marc McGovern, the policy confusion was the latest in a string of commission actions that inspired him last term to call for a roundtable with its officials. That meeting has not been scheduled.

“The License Commission has multiple responsibilities, including ensuring that license holders are following the law. They also have a responsibility to be transparent and to help people navigate a complex process. The last two are where I have the biggest concern,” McGovern said Wednesday. “There seems to be a lack of oversight and transparency and far too many stories of applicants not understanding the system and why certain decisions were made. We simply have to do better.”

Licensing “black hole”

The move to move to administrative handling of CV license applications would be in line with other distancing steps taken under the leadership of chair Nicole Murati Ferrer.

The commission is unique among Cambridge’s public bodies for moving its meetings unpredictably from day to day, so a hearing might show up on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, and in the morning or afternoon. In late 2017, the commission announced it would stop providing stenographic, searchable transcripts of its hearings, and instead post audio files and minutes describing what happens within. Between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, the commission removed a posted notice inviting people to “file viewing hours” – a visual confirmation of a practice in recent years to refuse to turn over readily accessible public documents, sometimes claiming to not know where they are and sometimes claiming they need to be reviewed first to see if they include material that must be redacted. Sometimes there are requirements for formal public records requests, which the commission can take up to 10 days to respond to.

September is also when the commission replaced its open-air customer service window with a style more often seen in banks, with glass and security measures such as a security camera, mirrors and electronic access controls.

In general, the commission and staff answer questions grudgingly if at all, even to city officials. “I don’t have trouble getting information out of any other commission, except for them. [City councillors] need to be able to provide our constituents with that information – and the License Commission is like a black hole. And that’s not okay,” McGovern said in September, when he had requested information in his role as mayor. “We need to get this straightened out and figure out how this is going to improve, because it’s not acceptable what’s happening there.”

Update on Feb. 26, 2020: Ferrer sent an email Monday saying she was responding to the Feb. 19 request for comment from the City Manager’s Office. She declined to answer specific questions beyond saying the commission website was “accurate and specific enough to inform the public and any applicant about the process,” but provided this statement:

“In 2016, the board voted to change the manner in which it considered common victualler applications. Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140 does not set a statutory requirement for how the board should consider a common victualler application other than the board can deny an application ‘if in [its] opinion the public good does not require [the license].’ Notwithstanding, the board considers all common victualler applications in an open meeting. When a common victualler application is for a location that has not been previously licensed as a common victualler (or not licensed as a common victualler in the previous years), then the application is placed on the applicant testimony portion of the meeting agenda. At that time, the board may inquire of the applicant and may solicit and accept public testimony as to the application. When a common victualler application is for a location that has been licensed as a common victualler and the new applicant is not changing the premises description, seating capacity/occupancy, or the hours of operation, then the application is considered during the administrative portion of the meeting, unless decided otherwise (i.e. known issues with the location, applicant, or questions as to the application). The Board has the discretion to bring the applicant in for the hearing, a subsequent hearing or to solicit testimony at any hearing. As with any item listed on the Board’s meeting agenda, the public may submit written testimony as to the application. In addition, if a member of the public is at a meeting and wishes to be heard on the application, the Board may allow it at its discretion.”