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Erie County legislators struggle with 2 a.m. bar closing measure but ultimately vote no

The legislator who had the most to gain – or to lose – by voting on a proposal to roll back restaurant and bar closing times from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. remained silent in the end.

Democratic legislator Thomas Loughran ran for re-election last fall and said he felt compelled to call for a public hearing after County Clerk Chris Jacobs released a poll showing that 69 percent of Erie County residents supported an earlier bar closing time. But he wasn’t happy to have the issue thrust before him.

As the owner of Loughran’s Bar & Restaurant in Snyder for the past 37 years, he had personal reservations about what such a change would mean for his business, and businesses like his.

“Either way, you could have argued I would have benefited,” he said.

He abstained from voting on the measure Thursday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Republican Legislator Kevin Hardwick experienced a change of heart. He had been prepared to vote against the 2 a.m. bar closing measure, but changed his mind after Tuesday’s public hearing, which lasted nearly three hours and showed wide support for the earlier closing time. In the end, he was one of only three legislators to favor the earlier cutoff time. Seven others voted to let the 4 a.m. closing time remain unchanged.

Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo predicted this type of outcome two weeks ago, when he angrily decried the call for a public hearing as little more than a dog-and-pony show to provide political cover for legislators who already knew exactly how they were going to vote. No matter what people said during the public hearing, he said, the outcome was clear: The proposal was going to fail.

He was mostly right about that.

But several legislators who originally said they weren’t interested in a public hearing and were tired of having the matter linger on, said Thursday that they were wrong to be so dismissive.

Hardwick was among those who didn’t expect a public hearing to matter.

Instead, he heard from half a dozen academics and researchers who persuaded him that a 2 a.m. bar closing measure was worth supporting.

Democratic Legislator Patrick B. Burke also said he learned something about the dangerous mix of fatigue and alcohol at the public hearing. Even though he still didn’t the support the closing proposal, he said, “I’m glad we had that public hearing. Originally, I was quite skeptical.”

Democratic Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, whose Buffalo district includes Allentown and the Chippewa Entertainment District, said she was torn because her constituents are divided. She ultimately voted against the 2 a.m. proposal, but was moved enough to sponsor a new proposal asking the State Legislature to amend the law to give the public the right to vote on the bar closing issue in a referendum. Her resolution was sent to committee.

In the end, every Democrat but Loughran voted against the earlier closing time. That included city legislators Miller-Williams, Burke, Peter J. Savage III and Betty Jean Grant. Joining them were Lorigo, C-West Seneca; Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg; and Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst.

They argued that the bill would do serious economic harm to small businesses, jeopardize jobs in the hospitality industry, and yield few, if any, improvements to public safety.

Lorigo called efforts to connect the 4 a.m. bar closing time to more crimes “ludicrous” and said businesses should not be punished for people’s failure to take responsibility for their actions, he said.

Three Republicans voted in favor of the proposal: Ted Morton of Cheektowaga; Hardwick, and Chairman John J. Mills of Orchard Park.

They said they supported the earlier closing time because of the academic research and testimony from law enforcement officials and residents that it would lead to a reduction in crime, accidents and neighborhood disruptiveness. Morton, the sponsor of the 2 a.m. closing proposal, referred to statistics indicating that the majority of DWI arrests occur between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.

“I guess it’s really easy, on an issue like this, to stick your head in the sand and say something doesn’t exist,” he said. “I get a little frustrated when I hear my colleagues say there is no evidence. We have been presented with a lot of evidence.”