Cafe’s fate lies in mayor’s hands

by Robert Koch

Barring last-minute action by Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, the Hard Times Cafe will close its doors June 17.
On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council voted 7-5 against renewal of the cafe’s restaurant, sidewalk-cafe and tobacco-dealer licenses.
The West Bank coffeehouse and restaurant has been the subject of controversy after a Jan. 26 police raid found drugs on the premises. Former employee Martin Johnson has since been charged with selling marijuana.
The council also adopted a movement by council member Joe Biernat, stipulating the license renewals be denied “for a period of one year.”
Although the council refused renewal rather than revoking the current licenses, the point is moot for cafe manager and co-owner Miki Takata.
“If you really look at it, it’s putting us out of business,” Takata said.
Council members based their votes in part on an April 28 memorandum issued by Administrative Law Judge Steven Mihalchick.
After a two-day hearing, Mihalchick found Johnson acted alone, and the cafe itself was not involved in drug trafficking. But he added every business is responsible for illegal activity on its premises.
“The sanctions and conditions to be imposed, if any, are up to the Minneapolis City Council,” Mihalchick concluded.
Council split
The vote for and against the license renewals was close with council member Joan Campbell absent. The cafe lies in her ward.
In a change of mind, council member Lisa McDonald sided with the cafe after voting against license renewal at the May 31 meeting of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee.
“It’s not consistent with our enforcement on other problem businesses,” McDonald said. “You should be fair.”
McDonald cited The Quest Club, South Beach, Tropix Beach Club and Banana Joe’s as other Minneapolis businesses in need of license review. She also questioned whether the cafe was given the opportunity to correct the problems.
But license-renewal opponents have also cited corrective measures in defending their positions.
The cafe installed mirrors to eliminate blind spots and tripled the probationary period for workers seeking to become co-owners. The owners’ failure, however, to sign a 16-point contract issued by the city has angered some council members.
Among other things, the contract asked the cafe to hire a security guard.
Biernat said the leadership of the business has rejected repeated efforts by police and regulatory services to meet and resolve problems.
“My information tells me that Hard Times thumbed their nose at these efforts,” Biernat said. “What recourse does regulatory-service staff have, other than not renewing the license?”
Hard Times attorney Robert Dildine called the contract a nonnegotiable agreement designed solely to close the business by imposing higher operating costs while reducing income.
“It was merely a financial attack on the cafe,” Dildine said.
Council member Barrett Lane said the punishment does not fit the crime and questioned whether the council had acted properly in its “quasi-judicial” role.
“I would not be surprised in the least if we find ourselves in a lawsuit over this,” Lane said.
Dildine hopes to meet with Mayor Sayles Belton this week to discuss the council’s action. Sayles Belton has until the end of the week to either sign or veto the measure. If the measure is signed, Hard Times will be forced to close.

Robert Koch covers police and courts and welcomes comments at [email protected]