By Dustin Luca
---- — Less than a week after coming to a tenuous, legally dubious agreement with the owners of Raagini Indian Bistro, the Board of Selectmen Monday night almost undid all that work — first voting to reject the renewal of the embattled eatery’s liquor license before changing course and approving it.
The board, acting in its capacity as liquor licensing commission, ultimately voted — narrowly — in favor of granting the year-old North Main Street restaurant renewal of its annual liquor license, but not before a heated debate among selectmen and the attorney for owner/manager Jasbinder Pabla.
The final vote had selectmen Brian Major, Mary Lyman and Alex Vispoli in favor, with Paul Salafia opposed and Dan Kowalski abstaining.
An earlier vote, however, had only Major and Lyman voting in favor, with Salafia against and Kowalski and Vispoli abstaining. Because liquor license renewals need the support of a majority of the board, the motion originally failed, leaving Pabla’s attorney confused.
“I am somewhat perplexed by the whole situation,” Haverhill lawyer Joseph Edwards told the board, as he stood at the podium with his client and his client’s interpreter.
Last week, selectmen and town counsel Tom Urbelis hammered out an agreement with Edwards that imposed a 10-day liquor license suspension starting Jan. 2, 2014 on Raagini.
The agreement also forced the restaurant’s former manager, Jaspreet Pabla, who is Jasbinder’s son, to resign as manager, and imposed a number of other restrictions, including a provision that the restaurant no longer employ women under the age of 21.
The agreement came on the eve of a hearing before the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission in Boston, which was to hear Raagini’s appeal of what was originally a 30-day liquor license suspension handed down by selectmen in June.
The suspension was ordered after Jaspreet Pabla admitted to serving alcohol to an underage girl at the restaurant.
Shortly after last week’s agreement was reached, Raagini withdrew its appeal and the ABCC hearing was canceled.
But the matter of Raagini’s annual liquor license renewal remained to be decided.
After the first vote Monday night, which would have rejected the liquor license, Edwards said, “We did work this agreement out in good faith. We spent a good deal of time here.”
“... We agreed to this on the 11th hour,” Edwards continued. “The next day was to be the hearing before the ABCC, at which point (the restaurant’s) rights were going to be further protected. We withdrew the request for the hearing based upon this. ... I can’t go back and have the hearing again.”
Major agreed, saying Monday night that the board’s approval of the agreement the previous week implied that they would also vote in favor of the annual liquor license renewal.
“Both the town and the facility worked hard to come to an agreement,” he said, adding that while he “wasn’t happy” with what happened, he felt the agreement was fair.
“I feel confident in recommending approval,” Major said.
Salafia, however, countered that the board had an obligation to the citizens, not the owners of the restaurant.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” he said. “This board issues licenses and I have to be comfortable I’m putting the citizens of this town in a safe environment. This violation was so severe ... I’m very concerned. We should have revoked the license that night, in the spring.”
Prior to Monday night’s initial vote, Vispoli cited concerns over the enforceability of the agreement as his reason for abstaining.
“Even though both parties agreed, is it enforceable?” he asked.
Town Clerk Larry Murphy said he wasn’t sure, adding that the questions were becoming too legal and should be directed to Town Counsel Urbelis, who was not at the meeting.
Vispoli broke the logjam when he offered to change his vote to one in favor, because “if that (enforceability) becomes an issue, I think there’s the opportunity to have the conversation with the applicant.”
After the vote, Edwards said he was surprised by what happened. However, he said, “we worked it out ... once they understood the full terms of the agreement.”
Kowalski said Tuesday that his concerns rested with the agreement that was reached last week. While he felt his concerns should be discussed in public, he said he first wanted to check with town counsel before bringing the matter forward.
Prior to the liquor license discussion Monday night, selectmen approved a change of manager for the restaurant from Jaspreet Pabla to Jasbinder Pabla.
Under the terms of the agreement reached last week, Jaspreet Pabla will only be allowed to work part-time at the restaurant until July, after which he can return to full-time status. But he is restricted from ever again serving as manager, according to the agreement.