PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday night delayed action on a liquor license for a bar that was the focal point of a shooting investigation less than two months ago, buying Sangillo’s Tavern about three weeks to remain open and make the case it’s a safe establishment.

After meeting for more than six hours — three hours of which centered around discussion of the Sangillo’s liquor license — the council at approximately midnight approved Councilor David Marshall’s motion to postpone a vote on the controversial item until its April 7 meeting.

The case of Sangillo’s Tavern at 18 Hampshire St. has become a hot topic in Portland in recent weeks, with well-known bartenders, bar owners and bar patrons from around the area defending the neighborhood landmark on the Internet after it became clear police would be asking the council to tear up the establishment’s liquor license.

A Facebook page titled “ Save Sangillo’s” attracted nearly 650 followers over its first five days.

“I do not want anything to happen to our tavern,” manager Kathleen Sangillo told the council Monday night. “It’s an icon. It’s an institution. It’s a safe place. … But I cannot vouch for anybody who walks by from the Old Port or anybody who happens to be walking by at 3 in the morning and gets in a fight.”

The council approved liquor licenses for four other establishments on Monday night.

In a report delivered to the council prior to its Monday night meeting by Lt. Gary Hutcheson of the Portland Police Department, the officer wrote that police responded to 23 calls for service at the bar or its vicinity between Feb. 26, 2013, and the end of January.

The highest profile of those calls was a Jan. 28 incident in which a 24-year-old Portland man was paralyzed by a gunshot wound outside the establishment just after closing time. That case, in which a shooter has yet to be charged, turned a spotlight on a venue where police say they’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the past year.

“The police department does not make recommendations for denials of liquor licenses often and we do not make them lightly,” Assistant Portland Police Chief Vernon Malloch told the council Monday.

The 23 calls for service include a May 18 incident in which a woman was reportedly grabbed by the hair and pulled to the ground by an unknown male while trying to leave the bar, and a Jan. 10 case in which a man told police a Sangillo’s patron had forced him to buy $200 worth of cocaine.

The tavern has also been cited twice in that nearly yearlong period for serving or allowing minors on the premises, Hutcheson added, and was the subject of an additional 27 “special attention checks” as police increased patrols in the area due to the rise in complaints.

“This level of police presence to prevent breaches of the peace and reduce violent crime is unsustainable,” Hutcheson wrote in his report to the council, adding, “We feel public safety is jeopardized by the continuing operation of this establishment. We are concerned for the neighborhood and patrons of the bar should it remain a licensed liquor establishment.”

Malloch acknowledged that other Portland bars had comparable numbers in terms of calls for service — Bubba’s Sulky Lounge generated 39 calls, Fore Play Sports Bar & Grill attracted 19 and Oasis nightclub had 17 — but the other establishments he mentioned had capacities of well more than 200 patrons.

Sangillo’s Tavern, in comparison, has a capacity of only 30.

But the owner and manager of the bar — Dana Sangillo and his aunt, Kathleen, respectively — have countered that they’ve done everything police have asked to try and address the safety concerns, and their attorney described the police data as overblown.

Kathleen Sangillo told the council patrons of other Old Port bars often travel up Hampshire Street after closing time, and many cases of unruly activity can be attributed to people who weren’t Sangillo’s customers.

Attorney Harry Center, representing Sangillo’s, noted that only seven of the police’s 23 incidents in question were serious enough to generate reports. Two of them were cases where underage or already drunk patrons were denied service — as the bar is legally required to do — and became unruly. He also said the bar’s citations for serving or allowing minors on premises are being challenged and cannot be considered by the council until those appeals processes run their course.

“I would say the bar is definitely not a safety issue and we always work with Portland police to try and make the bar safer,” Kathleen Sangillo told reporters Monday evening, adding that the venue has never in the past had trouble getting its liquor license renewed. “I was in total awe when I went to get my license and they told me there was a problem.”

In a letter to the police by Center, he notes that they hired a new doorman and installed security cameras to help regulate and monitor traffic coming and going from the site.

Kathleen Sangillo even offered to stop serving Hennessey and Remy Martin brands of cognac after identifying them as “related to detrimental conduct” by patrons.

The family-owned tavern was founded by Italian immigrant Pat Sangillo in 1960.

In late 2012, the food and culture publication Cocktails + Joints lauded Sangillo’s Tavern as one of Portland’s destination “dive bars,” using the term endearingly to describe places with “cheap booze, strong drinks and good atmosphere.”

“I think it’s important to maintain some authenticity in this town, against the Hiltons and the Hyatts, to save some part of ‘Little Italy’ on the hill, which is disappearing,” said Christy McKinnon, former Sangillo’s bartender and Kathleen Sangillo’s daughter. “Everybody is willing to work with the police to solve these issues. It’s just a matter of time.”

Hugh Nazor, president of the India Street Neighborhood Association, said his organization supports granting a temporary liquor license while the tavern continues working to implement safety measures.

“It’s very much a neighborhood institution,” he said.

But while the tavern attracted support Monday night, Malloch said neighborhood residents who might have concerns about rowdy patrons need to be considered, too.

He rattled off several summertime dates where police responded to fights in the parking lot, on occasions with as many as eight, 15 and 20 fighters involved.

“Some of the people who may have called the police on those nights may not come here and express their concerns,” Malloch said. “People feel intimidated to come before you and come before the massive support a popular bar may have.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.