By Mark E. Vogler
LAWRENCE — The city's bars and night clubs will be able to keep their 2 a.m. closing time for Friday nights indefinitely.
Members and supporters of a group called Restaurant and Liquor Establishments United packed City Council Chambers last night, lobbying the Licensing Board to defeat a proposal to roll back last call by an hour.
After hearing testimony from more than a dozen speakers — most of them supporting the night clubs' right to stay open an hour later — the board couldn't reach a decision. Chairman Richard Fielding voted for the roll back, but Mayra Lantigua opposed it.
The three-member board has been short-handed since Jan. 1, when Thomas Murphy left, leaving a vacancy which hasn't been filled yet.
Club owners and their supporters cheered when they learned a tie vote was the same as a victory.
"They won on a technicality," Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said after the meeting.
"What can you do? With only two people on the board, it's a split decision, so we go back to status quo. But I think we made our case by presenting statistical data that showed when we have a 1 o'clock closing time, we have less crime," the chief said.
Romero was referring to a 90-day rollback trial conducted from last Nov. 12 through Feb. 12.
Club-related incidents investigated by the police dropped from 31 to 13 compared to the same period a year earlier (Nov. 12, 2010-Feb 12, 2011).
Before casting his vote, Chairman Fielding said the data proved to him that a 1 a.m. closing helped to lower crime.
But Myra Lantigua, the estranged wife of Mayor William Lantigua, said she remained unconvinced of the need for a roll back of bar closing hours on Friday nights.
Myra Lantigua said she thought the Lawrence night clubs were getting blamed unfairly for the increase of violent crime in the city.
Other area communities already have 2 a.m. closings, so why deprive Lawrence establishments, she asked.
"We should be working together to make a better city," she said, acknowledging offers from some of the bar owners who spoke, who wanted to cooperate with police and city officials in curbing bar-related incidents.
Springfield attorney Reinaldo Gonzalez, who represents Restaurant and Liquor Establishments United, told the board the group of "21 or so business owners" would prefer to work with police and fire officials instead of facing a financial hardship from the rollback.
"You're looking at a half million dollars of economic impact and loss to the city of Lawrence," he said of the estimated annual loss.
But Chief Romero said the cost of the 2 a.m. closing would be far worse.
"The issue is people are coming to Lawrence to continue drinking, and I don't think that benefits the residents or the city," Romero said.
City resident Chally Ramos recalled the tragic shooting of a high school basketball star "outside a night club at 2 a.m. in the morning" several years ago.
But Angel Sanchez, who spoke on behalf of Le Drink House, noted "we have been seeing people shot at daylight."
"How can we blame the clubs for everything that is happening in Lawrence?," Sanchez asked.