By Anne Alvarez
The Venice Neighborhood Council voted unanimously, Jan. 17, to recommend that L.A. City Council revoke the liquor license of La Fortuna Market located at 824 Lincoln Blvd., adjacent to Cafe 50s.
Proprietor Margarita Romo and her brother, Emilio, have been serving Venice’s Latino community for over 32 years, a community that is diminishing day by day, thanks to the gentrification taking place.
“That is why they want me out of here, they are doing away with the Latinos.” They see us as trouble, even though my wife, Maria, and I have always paid our taxes, business and licensing fees every year for the past 32 years. We have never asked for anything from anyone. We are respectful hard working people.
“I’ve made one or two mistakes,” added Romo, referring to a citation he received for having a beer with his lunch in the back of the store back in July 2009. I had to pay a fine and our license was briefly suspended, so never again would I do that.”
During this time Romo adds, “The Los Angeles Police Department was really on me, in particular Officer Paul Bowser. I felt targeted. All these years in business, 29 years at the time, and never any problems.
“All of a sudden a neighbor that lives in the alley directly behind my market is upset that there are homeless people loitering close to her home and she decides it is my fault, if she saw them holding a beer in hand it was automatically presumed they purchased it from me, even if at the time my store was closed. I actually have pictures of garbage left behind, including empty beer cans. These photos prove the alcohol did not come from me as it is a brand that I don’t carry,” Romo said.
According to a letter from the Department of City Planning there have been allegations of buying and selling narcotics, prostitution, public urination and defecation, lewd conduct,excessive noise, vandalism, loitering, graffiti, trash and debris, illegal parking and police detention.
There was never a complain filed with Alcohol Beverage Control or the Alcohol Tobacco and Tax Trade Bureau regarding these issues, and never any warning for what followed.
Officer Bowser and another officer, not in uniform, showed up at La Fortuna with a paper, which Romo was pressured into signing. He was told by the officers that not doing so, would garner him another condition to abide by, he would have to bag everything in orange plastic bags and he would be arrested for refusing to cooperate he said.
Romo, whose second language is English was not allowed to call an interpreter. The officers said they would interpret for him.
According to Romo, he was unaware of the content of the document, thinking it pertained to his previous citation.
Soon after a letter arrived from the Zoning Commission asking Romo to show up for a hearing. Romo hired an attorney Robert Starr, who informed him that the document officer Bowser had forced him to sign, was a list of rules that LAPD had imposed on La Fortuna in order to continue operating his store.
These new rules restricted the hours of operation, and demanded they have a uniformed security guard to patrol the 50x18ft store as well as patrol the adjoining alley/parking lot and the adjacent sidewalk area to deter individuals from loitering. The rules also prohibited him from selling anything less than a six pack of beer along with 29 other requirements. Romo complied with all but one, a full-time security guard.
“It is impossible for me to hire a full-time employee at this time, we are barely getting by. It is unnecessary and unfair to single me out. Other much larger liquor stores and markets, including 7-11, aren’t required to have a guard. The neighbors that are complaining have never set foot in my store, yet they hate me and my family. They want us out. It is incredible how people can be so cruel towards someone they don’t know. This is my livelihood I have spent most of my life in Venice,” Romo said.
Gary Neville whose office is two doors from La Fortuna has been an avid advocate for the Romos.
“ I can’t stand by and watch an innocent person be railroaded, by vicious lies. Romo is a good hard working man, I have no complaints.”
Neville sent the following letter in support of La Fortuna to VNC members, before the January vote: Attn: Board Members – Tuesday night, January 17, I shall be distributing photographs of certain activities relating to conditions of Dillon Court alley and in support of La Fortuna Market exemplary and responsible current operation, i.e., Ralph’s market customers toting their singles and glass bottles I find in the alley (not from La Fortuna). I do this in an effort to educate the VNC to the reality of alley drinking problems—Ralph’s Market and some of the places you identified to me—not La Fortuna Market.
The following is an excerpt from an e-mail sent by Neville after the VNC vote: “An innocent man may get railroaded out of the community and lose his only livelihood because of board members seem unwilling to challenge speakers . . . and ask for FACTS! Thank God courts don’t allow unsubstantiated, mindless babble such as mouthed Jan. 17 by both speakers and most council members, instead of provable facts!”
Romo also has the full support of his landlord, Ortencia Delgado, who says she doesn’t agree with what the city is trying to do. She used to operate La Fortuna from 1975 until 1980 at which time the Romos took it over.
“It is unfair what they are doing, these are good hard working people that never hurt anyone. They are struggling in this economy barely surviving. To take away their liquor license would devastate them,” she said.
Not all are against Romo. A letter dated Dec. 10, 2011, addressed from the Zoning Administration stated: “LAPD Pacific Area Vice Unit, does not protest the removal of condition 1, licensed security guard required, and condition 3, modification of hours to 1900 hours.” On January 26 LAPD officer Branis conducted an inspection and found no violations.
Lourdes Green, Associate Zoning Administrator, could not comment on the case as her final ruling is still pending. She did say, however, that LAPD is happy with the way Romo is operating his business. In response to a question about how it is that Zoning is involved in the revocation of a liquor license, she said they didn’t have that authority to do so, but they can revoke the use of the space.
According to Will Salao, ABC district administrator, La Fortuna has no restrictions or open complaints on file. Salao added that ABC is the only governmental entity allowed to revoke a license, not the city council, zoning administration or police department and most certainly not the local neighborhood council. In the meantime, Romo was forced to file a Plan Approval with the Office Of Zoning Administration, as if he was opening a new business, for which he had to pay a $5995 application fee.
The City has also billed Romo $21,025 and applicable surcharges, for looking into this matter, and according to City planning this is only “partial cost recovery.”
The most disturbing part of this story is the devious way that this matter has been mishandled by members of the VNC, who are suppose to represent the entire Venice population, not just based on race or economic standing. Margarita Romo was told by VNC Boardmember Jake Kaufman that it was more than likely the La Fortuna issue would not be voted on that night, yet 40 minutes later, after members of the audience had left, including Margarita Romo and a couple that had come to speak on behalf of the Romos, the issue was brought up again. Romo’s opponents a chance to speak and persuade the members to vote in favor of of recommending the Romo’s license revocation.
If you would like to support La Fortuna, stop by 824 Lincoln Blvd. Get to know its proprietors and sign the petition to stop the harassment and unfair treatment being brought by the city against a 32-year Venice community member.
Also please contact Councilmember Bill Rosendahl at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-575-8461 to voice your support.
In the meantime the Romo’s patiently wait for their fate to be determined.