What happened on Dec. 24?

Gwen Chamberlain

The root of the conflict between the mayor, police chief and members of the Police Benevolent Association is based in the enforcement of the New York State Liquor Authority’s provisions for governing licenses to sell alcoholic beverages. 

There are differing versions of the Dec. 24 events, but they are all connected to the interpretation of a state law regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages in Yates County.

The Police Officer

Penn Yan Police Officer Michael Rago filed a Police Department document called a “Call for Service” at 8:27 p.m. Dec. 24.

Rago has since left the department to take a job with the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department. The village board had accepted his resignation at its Dec. 11, 2007 meeting, and Mayor Douglas Marchionda Jr. and Police Chief Gene Mitchell both say Rago had no previous performance problems.

“Mike’s a good cop. Ontario County wouldn’t have taken him if he wasn’t,” said Mitchell on Jan. 17.

Rago’s documentation of the events say he observed patrons in Lloyd’s Limited at 27 minutes past “closing time” on Christmas Eve consuming alcohol. He says he spoke with owner Bob Champlin, who said he thought closing time was 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve and that he was planning an employee party after closing.

Rago said he advised Champlin that between 8 p.m. Christmas Eve and 8 a.m. Christmas Day he (Champlin) could not dispense alcoholic beverages and he (Rago) would inform Police Chief Gene Mitchell, who would decide whether the State Liquor Authority would be notified.

Rago’s next entry on the computer-generated document was at 9:34 p.m., when he wrote that 10 minutes after speaking with Champlin, a dispatcher from the Yates County 911 Center advised him that Penn Yan Mayor Douglas Marchionda Jr. wanted a phone call regarding village business. Rago notified his supervisor of the request and called the mayor at his home.

Rago wrote on the document, “The reporting officer advised the mayor what occurred and what the law stated. The mayor replied that the State Liquor Authority law of banning alcoholic beverages between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. was probably set by the Puritans and he could over-ride the Chief of Police on any law at any time and that if those people wanted to do that with their Christmas Eve, he did not care. Mayor did not want any more calls on this matter tonight. The mayor advised the reporting officer to disregard the order of the Chief of Police and leave Lloyd’s alone for the rest of the night.

“The reporting officer then advised the Chief of Police who advised that he would contact Lloyd’s owner Robert Champlin. All other alcoholic serving businesses were checked and were closed.”

The Mayor

Marchionda says he was at home entertaining several family members for Christmas Eve, when he took phone calls from both Champlin and Marchionda’s uncle, Steve Marchionda, a patron at Lloyd’s Limited. He says both men complained about the way Rago approached the situation.

“Mr. Rago was in error when he did what he did. The police department over-stepped their bounds when they ordered the people out of the building,” he says, explaining the village code enforcement officer is the only one who can order anyone to leave a building.

Marchionda says he advised Rago to leave the patrons alone out of his concern the village could face a harassment charge, adding “Futhermore, the police department cannot close down a business. He (Champlin) can be open for the sale of food and non-alcoholic beverages.”

Marchionda admits he may have been abrupt with Rago, but he says he has no regrets about the action he took.

“I will take credit if my delivery was not pleasant, but my reasoning was sound and I stand by that,” he says. But he also says Rago was defensive and responded to him in a demeaning way, which he feels may have been an indication of the officer’s demeanor in Lloyd’s.

“They accuse me of trying to tell them how to do their job. My duty is to make sure people do their job properly and do not open us (the village) to liability,” he says, adding that he wanted the police officers to show him an actual law that was being enforced.

The Police Chief

Mitchell says police officers have always checked in on bars in Penn Yan on Christmas Eve, a fact confirmed by other officers with experience in the department, including Police Benevolent Association President Michael Donovan.

Mitchell says the practice dates back several years and over the terms of Chiefs Steve Hill and Ray Stewart.

“It’s just like any other night at 1 a.m.,” says Mitchell, adding, “This is the way it’s always been.”

Mitchell entered his comments on the Call for Service document as well.

In the document he states he “advised Champlin that if he did not clear people out of his bar that a referral (notification to the State Liquor Authority) may be done.” Mitchell documented that last year, an officer observed patrons in Lloyd’s at 10 p.m. He says he spoke with Champlin last year, advising him about the law.

Mitchell says shortly after his conversation with Champlin, he took a call from Marchionda. His notes include the following statement:

“He repeated the Puritan statement to me and insisted that he was ‘my boss’ that I answered to him on all matters and I made a mistake in telling anyone that he did not have the right to override my decision as Police Chief. I explained to him that it was state law, all the other bars were complying and Mr. Champlin knew what the law was.”

Mitchell also wrote “He (Marchionda) went on to state that maybe we didn’t need a police department it that was all we had to worry about. He also stated that Officer Rago was ‘lucky’ he was leaving or he wouldn’t have a job after the way he talked to him (Marchionda).”

Mitchell, like Marchionda, says he has no second thought about the actions he took that evening. “For me to follow the mayor’s directive and ignore one of the State Liquor Authority laws we follow would be wrong. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”