By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — A popular downtown nightclub has been put on six months probation after fire inspectors said its owner and manager aggressively confronted them on recent visits, once trying to block them from entering and another time throwing them out as they documented overcrowding, bolted exits and other fire code violations.
The city’s newly reconstituted Licensing Board voted 3-0 vote to put El Centro on probation after Fire Chief Jack Bergeron urged it to go further and revoke the club’s liquor license, which effectively would have shut the Common Street club.
Revoking El Centro’s liquor license would have extended the crackdown on troubled bars by the Licensing Board, which revoked liquor licenses for La Guira, Marabu Cafe and Fuego Latino over the last year in response to a wave of violence that swept through the city’s bars and clubs but has subsided.
The board has been entirely reshaped in recent months, following the death of former chairman Rick Fielding, the resignation of member Thomas Murphy and the elevation of Mayra Lantigua – Mayor William Lantigua’s former wife – to acting chairman.
Mayra Lantigua could not be reached yesterday to learn if last week’s Licensing Board vote represented a softening of the harder line against troubled bars and clubs that the earlier board eventually and reluctantly embraced.
Member Ronald Martin said the board voted to put El Centro on probation after he said Bergeron agreed to it as a compromise with the club’s owners, including at least one who attended the Licensing Board hearing last week. The club is owned by Paul Tarshi, according to the fire inspector's reports, and managed by John Tarshi.
The probation includes “the stipulation that if there are any other violations, there would automatically be a new hearing,” Martin said. “We wouldn’t look too kindly upon it.”
Martin referred other questions to Mayra Lantigua.
Chief Bergeron said his recommendation to shut the club was the right one.
“The Tarshis were acting irresponsibly,” Bergeron said. “In my mind, as fire chief, (people) like that shouldn’t have a license to operate a club.”
John Tarshi did not return a phone call yesterday. The family’s lawyer, Kenneth Withem, could not be reached.
Besides putting El Centro on probation, the Licensing Board ordered it to remove dead bolts on exits, to allow the club to be reinspected and to treat inspectors respectfully.
“Fire Department investigators shall not be verbally assaulted at the premises or ordered off the premises,” one of the conditions the board attached to the probation states.
El Centro’s recent troubles began April 12, when Paul Tarshi confronted inspectors as they pointed out several alleged fire code violations, including overcrowding and at least five exits or entrances that were bolted shut.
“Mr. Tarshi immediately took an aggressive stance and started hollering and screaming,” inspector Frank Skusevich said in a report describing his effort to question Paul Tarshi about a forklift and propane tank on a sidewalk at the entrance during a concert at the club on April 12. “Instantly, he went into (a) rage and started talking about harassment and many other rants. He was several inches from my face hollering and pointing his finger at my forehead.”
Backed up by club security, Tarshi ejected the team of four inspectors, Skusevich’s report says.
Another team of inspectors got a similar treatment on May 26, after police called the Fire Department to report overcrowding at the club, a report by Fire Inspector Pat Ruiz says. John Tarshi blocked the inspectors at the door but eventually let them in, where they observed the overcrowding and other violations, Ruiz’s report says.
“No one at the main entrance had a proper counter and employees were pointing at each other indicating who was actually keeping count,” Ruiz said in his report. Patrons were wall-to-wall on the first floor and stage area.... We consulted with (Police) Sgt. Michael Simard, who indicated that if we prevented the people who were waiting on the sidewalk from entering the establishment, a greater hazard might be created.”
Inspectors ordered that people outside could not be allowed in until people inside left.
El Centro has had other problems in earlier years.
Police cited the club twice in 2010 for allegedly serving minors, including on March 11, when police and agents for the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission found 17 minors, including teenagers, either drinking or on the premises, according to a police report.
Two years earlier, the club was firebombed.