PORTLAND, Maine — An attorney representing embattled Portland bar Sangillo’s Tavern sought during a state hearing Thursday to cast doubt upon police records city officials used to deny the venue its liquor license.

A divided Portland City Council voted 5-4 last April to reject the tavern’s liquor license renewal, a move which, if upheld, would effectively close the longstanding neighborhood bar.

The councilors who voted to strip the bar of its license were swayed by police arguments that the venue and its clientele have fueled disorder in the India Street neighborhood, culminating in a Jan. 28 shooting outside the establishment that left one man paralyzed.

But the owners and managers of Sangillo’s appealed the denial to the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations, which began an appeal hearing on the case on Thursday in Portland.

The hearing was scheduled to take two days, and bureau officials may take several weeks to render their decision.

On Thursday, Portland corporation counsel Danielle West-Chuhta reiterated to the state officials why police recommended denial of the license to begin with.

“There were repeated instances of breaches of the peace, as well as disorderly conduct in the vicinity of Sangillo’s, as well as assaults,” she said.

Lt. Gary Hutcheson of the Portland Police Department said police tied 24 service calls to Sangillo’s over an approximately 11-month period, from Feb. 26, 2013, to Jan. 30, 2014 — the time between the tavern’s previous license renewal and when it came forward to apply for a new one.

Police said those calls included an incident in which a female was grabbed by the hair by a patron and thrown to the ground, an incident in which a bartender was punched unconscious, and some other dustups.

But attorney Tim Bryant, representing Sangillo’s at the Thursday hearing, argued that almost none of the 24 calls could be tied definitively to the tavern. He said a nearby drugstore has been the site of a robbery and stabbing in recent years, and that many homeless people frequent the area.

“There are an awful lot of problems in this neighborhood, but they’re not because of Sangillo’s,” he said. “If you close Sangillo’s, a lot of people will lose their jobs and a small business will go away, but the problems won’t go away.”

Bryant, reading from brief police reports on each of the service calls Hutcheson referenced, pointed out that there was often no mention of a specific Sangillo’s employee or patron, rather the bar was inferred as a source of the problem because the incident took place nearby or happened around closing time.

In some cases in which Sangillo’s was determined to be the site of the incidents, bar employees were the ones calling police because they responsibly refused service to underage or over-intoxicated patrons, and those customers became angry, Bryant continued.

More than half of the calls to police were from one neighbor, the attorney said.

“You’re going to hear about a lot of alleged incidents, but there’s just no evidence these incidents are caused by my clients’ establishment,” Bryant told the bureau officials.

Representatives of the bar — such as manager Kathleen Sangillo — have long insisted that they’ve done everything police have asked to try and address the safety concerns.

Among the steps taken by the tavern were: A pledge that all tavern staff would take alcohol training classes annually, the hiring of two doormen to work seven nights per week, the addition of night managers to be on-hand every night, maintenance of a 16-camera security system, proposals for more outside lighting, and the offering to host monthly neighborhood meetings at the site to field new questions and concerns as they arise.

The family-owned tavern was founded by Italian immigrant Pat Sangillo in 1960, and it represents a landmark holdover in a blue-collar neighborhood that in recent years has begun gentrifying.

A 19-member India Street Advisory Committee has been working to develop a neighborhood planning guide that would highlight the area’s historic buildings and provide standards for future development there.

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.”

Arlin Smith — co-owner of nearby restaurants Hugo’s and Eventide, trendy establishments whose emergence has contributed to the area’s rebound in recent years — came to the defense of Sangillo’s on Thursday.

“I’ve seen the changes,” he told the state bureau officials. “I feel very safe in that neighborhood. Myself and my staff frequent Sangillo’s. I want to keep Sangillo’s as a neighbor.”

Sangillo’s has been allowed to remain open while its appeal of the city denial plays out.

Seth Koenig

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