Response to violence appears soft

Could it be that Warren’s leaders don’t want to get tough on violent crime? Or does it just seem that way?

Let’s take the troubled Sunset Lounge as an example.

The city documented that it has been ”gravely concerned” about the nature of police calls to the bar from May to present. This grave concern prompted city leaders several months ago to protest the renewal of the lounge’s state-issued liquor permit, issued to building owner Joseph E. Sankey, Jr.

Warren City Council pushed for the non-renewal because police, from May through August, responded to more than 20 calls, the worst of which was a fight, at the downtown nightspot.

Then, on New Year’s Day, a man was murdered inside the lounge and gunfire, according to 911 transcripts, spilled onto the streets endangering many, including a woman who was shot in the foot while fleeing the scene. This prompted city leaders and Sankey to reach an agreement to close the bar temporarily. This agreement, Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa says, renders ”moot” the city’s attempt to prevent the liquor license renewal.

Let’s summarize. When the worst thing that happened was a fight, City Council wanted the place closed forever by having its license taken away. When the trouble escalated to murder, Cantalamessa, Mayor Doug Franklin and Law Director Greg Hicks accepted a compromise from the owner that potentially could allow him to reopen this week.

In mid-October the Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Liquor Control had scheduled a hearing during which the city was to protest renewal of the license. With no sense of urgency, the Law Director’s office asked for a continuance. In December the hearing was again postponed, this time at the request of Sankey’s attorney, and the city, again displaying no sense of urgency, did not object.

Hicks said the first delay was necessary because city attorney James Ries was not available, and he is the only one in the Law Department worthy of handling liquor license cases.

Hicks at the time, however, knew Ries was about to retire and would likely not handle the case anyway. Hicks at the time also knew that another city attorney would handle a similar case involving the Olympic Inn.

Also in December Tony Ianucci, the executive director of the Warren Redevelopment and Planning Corp., listed the Sunset Lounge among several new businesses that WRAP had helped in downtown Warren. All of this calls into question how serious city leaders are about dealing with the problems being caused by the Sunset Lounge.

Part of this ”settlement agreement” is that Sankey would not lease the building to Dream Team Productions, owned by convicted felon LaShawn Ziegler. It is illegal for felons to operate a bar, and Ziegler has a long history of owning violent establishments in the city. Part of the liquor license hearing was to center on evidence that Ziegler opened the Sunset with Sankey as his business mentor.

But, according to Sankey, Ziegler has never been part of the bar. Sankey told the Tribune Chronicle in early December, ”I even went to his (Ziegler’s) probation officer to try to work it out so he could work at the bar. We were told that wouldn’t be possible. The thing is, he doesn’t own any part of it. I do. I own the liquor license. I’ve always owned it, not him. I owned it when it was Blue Magoo’s, and I own it now. LaShawn doesn’t own any part of that now and he never has.”

In other words, nothing has changed except that the seriousness of the problems escalated from fights to gunfire and murder. Yet city leaders saw fit to soften how they were going to pursue their case against this troublesome bar.

Before the settlement agreement, the Franklin administration declared its intention to file a nuisance action against Sunset Lounge. A common pleas court judge could then abate the nuisance by closing the establishment for one year.

Cantalamessa said the city chose the settlement agreement over the nuisance action because it could take a long time for the nuisance action to move through the court. However, when the city filed a nuisance action against Benji Brown’s, a bar on North Park Avenue operated by Ziegler, following a murder there, it took three days for the court to rule in the city’s favor.

In the same amount of time it took to reach a settlement with Sunset’s owner, the city could’ve had the place padlocked for a year.

Because of a technicality, the city lost the Benji Brown’s nuisance abatement on appeal. That was not cited as a reason to abandon the nuisance action against Sunset, presumably because the Law Department learned to avoid the technicality.

These actions, and inactions, in the face of what the city termed a ”grave concern” raise questions about how tough of a stance city leaders are failing against violent crime.