A Johnston restaurant owner was voted out of business last year during a council meeting he didn’t attend, the culmination of two years of friction that led to a state police investigation. But did politics play a role in the closure? Jim Hummel has differing accounts from the owner and the councilman about what happened.
When it opened on Valentine’s Day 2015 the Music Man Café was serving three meals a day, in a plaza the restaurant shared with more than half a dozen businesses on Plainfield Pike in Johnston.
Owner Al Saccoccia had spent $100,000 to buy and renovate the former Clubhouse Pub. Everything was going well until Saccoccia’s wife got a call a few months after the restaurant opened.
Saccoccia: ``She got a call from the councilman, saying that if she didn’t move the cars that were parked in the street, he was going to call the Dept. of Business Regulation and have us shut down.’’
The councilman was Richard J. DelFino III, who represents the district where the Music Man is located.
Saccoccia: ``You can’t park on Plainfield Pike, you’ve got to move the cars, and he didn’t want the cars out there. But now we’re in a plaza, there are eight other stores here, I mean we don’t know whose cars they are.’’
That started months of friction between the councilman and the Saccoccias - culminating last summer with DelFino urging his fellow council members to pull the restaurant’s operating licenses at a meeting Saccoccia did not attend.
The Rhode Island State Police opened an investigation into the case in December, after Saccoccia met for nearly two hours with several detectives at the Scituate headquarters. The detectives made a followup visit to Town Hall last month.
On Friday morning a state police spokeswoman said the department found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing so the case has been closed.
During a wide-ranging interview Saccoccia told us DelFino insisted that cars that were all legally parked caused problems and needed to be moved - especially on Plainfield Pike, which has an 8-foot wide shoulder lane deemed by the state as large enough to safely accommodate parked cars on the busy road.
Hummel: ``So for almost a year you’ve had no problem?’’
Saccoccia: ``We’ve never had a problem, to this day we’ve never had a problem.’’
Hummel: ``I mean with people parking on the road.’’
Saccoccia: ``Nobody’s ever said anything, we’ve never physically had people come in to say move the cars, except for him.’’
We caught up with DelFino after last month’s council meeting.
DelFino: ``We make efforts to meet with business owners and have contact with them about neighborly issues. I respond to hundreds and hundreds of constituents’ requests and I handle them all the same: Professionally, honorably, and lawfully and stick up for my residents because the quality of life for my residents is the top priority.’’
DelFino defended his recommendation that the council not renew Saccoccia’s liquor, victualling and entertainment licenses in June of 2017, all of which he had paid up front for the entire year.
Hummel: ``What drew your attention to this particular restaurant? What was the issue?’’
DelFino: ``Calls from neighbors, whether it was parking, whether it was a number of different complaints. Taxes being owed.’’
Hummel: ``So that’s all documented in terms of the complaints or did you get those by phone?’’
DelFino: ``I get all sorts of complaints all of the time.’’
Hummel: ``Documented anywhere?’’
DelFino: ``People call me and that’s part of the job, you take complaints, in-person complaints. You handle them all the same way no matter what.’’
A Hummel Report review of meeting transcripts during 2016 and 2017 shows that no one from the public complained to the council. Saccoccia admits he fell behind on his tangible taxes during a year when his wife had a heart attack, he had a stroke and both of his brothers died. But he cut the town a check for nearly $2,500 to get current.
In September of 2016, one of DelFino’s opponents in that year’s election - Deborah Spaur - held a fundraiser at The Music Man.
Saccoccia: ``We had an 18-year-old kid working for us and he said his mom wanted to have party for her family, it was like a little get together because she was running for council and that was basically the downfall.’’
Hummel: ``At the time you didn’t know it, though?’’
Saccoccia: ``No, you would never think that.’’
Hummel: ``Was there anything personal or political involved in this?’’
DelFino: ``Absolutely not, absolutely not. I don’t know the gentlemen outside of him being an owner. I don’t know of anything political., nor do I care if there was anything political. I’m elected to do a job.’’
Saccoccia repeatedly argued with DelFino - unsuccessfully - that every car he had an issue with was parked legally. So DelFino took another tack: calling on the state Department of Transportation to try and help him in the summer of 2015.
Saccoccia: ``These two guys are DOT inspectors and I’m having them put up no parking signs in front of your plaza. And I said: `You can’t do that, you can’t have parking from Atwood Avenue all the way up to the corner of our plaza, no parking, and then parking from this corner forward. You can’t single us out.’ And the DOT inspector, I don’t know their names, literally put his hands up like this and said `This sounds personal between you two people and I can tell you right now it’s a white-lined parking lane all the way up and we’re not putting up No Parking signs.’”
We obtained a copy of a letter from the State Traffic Commission that determined the shoulder lane on Plainfield Pike was quote: ``sufficient to accommodate a parked vehicle without obstructing traffic.’’
And since parking did not affect ``the safety or mobility of the travelling public’’ the state took no action and parking there remained permissible.
Despite that, Saccoccia tried to work with DelFino.
Saccoccia: ``We basically forbid all our workers from parking out there. So we parked on the sides of the building, there’s parking on both sides and there’s actually parking in the back.‘’
It came to a head in early 2017 when the owners were summoned to appear before the council. After several contentious exchanges, DelFino recommended a 3-month extension of the licenses while Saccoccia was directed to come up with a plan to solve the `parking issues’.
In May the Saccoccias - sensing trouble - brought a lawyer with them.
Saccoccia: ``At that meeting when they saw the lawyer the basically dropped the parking problem and said parking’s been pretty good you’re all set. But you owe taxes.’’
Even though they had been paid in full through July, six days before the meeting.
DelFino: ``We have a lot of great businesses in the town. We’re fortunate, we’re business-friendly, but there are rules that have to be followed, like paying your taxes, like following stipulations and ordinances, and you know stipulations on licenses, which is important because what happens is these things spiral out of control and continue to fester and it deteriorates our neighborhoods and that’s not fair to our constituents.’’
Since the councilman was on record saying parking was not an issue anymore and the taxes were current, Saccoccia’s lawyer told him he didn’t have to attend the June meeting, that the renewal would be routine.
That turned out to be a critical mistake. DelFino brought up both issues again - and made a motion not to renew the licenses - with Saccoccia not at the meeting. Saccoccia had to close because of heavy rains after that anyway and by the time he had the damage fixed it was too late to fight for the license and try to reopen.
Months later Saccoccia ran into DelFino at coffee shop in Johnston.
Saccoccia: ``He’ll give me my license back in October, because it was too late for the September meeting, only if - listen to this one - on a Sunday when we’re busy I have to walk out there and tell people they can’t park in the street. I said: Put up no parking signs. `Well, the town doesn’t have the authority to do so.’ Well, if the town doesn’t have the authority to do so why is it my responsibility to leave my place of business when we’re trying to serve customers and make money to pay taxes to go out there and tell them to have to move. `Well if you don’t do that you’re not getting your license back.’”
DelFino: ``And I met with him afterward to say: here are the steps we need to take to make this situation better.’’
Hummel: ``How soon after they were pulled did you meet with him?”
DelFino: ``It was over the summer. I was in contact with him and was happy to meet and sit with him and eventually did and wanted to work with him like I do with everybody else. But these issues go on - we have so many good businesses, how can you continue to operate and owe taxes, that’s not fair to the person, the neighbor sitting next to you or the small business that may be struggling to survive.’’
Saccoccia: ``At that point in October it would have been four or five months, we’ve lost all of our workers, they’ve all moved on to other jobs, we basically probably lost all of our customers. We would have to start from scratch again, probably have to change our name, I mean really, we lost everything.’’
In Johnston, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.