Q&A: How Dylan Conley wants to improve the Providence Board of Licenses

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The new chairman of the Providence Board of Licenses has his work cut out for him.

Dylan Conley, a 30-year-old attorney who was tapped to lead the board Monday evening, is taking the helm at a time when city officials are angry that troubled nightclubs are being allowed to reopen, residents are questioning the board’s decisions and business owners are frustrated with a licensing process that can be cumbersome.

So how does Conley plan to address those concerns? He sat with down with WPRI.com to discuss his top priorities.

The interview has been lightly edited and annotated for length and clarity.

Tell me why you think you’re the right choice to be chairman of the licensing board.

Professionally, I work with a lot of municipalities, a lot of municipal boards. I know how they function. I have a legal understanding of our due process requirements, the sort of hurdles and concerns you have upon appeal. And I want to set up policies that won’t just help the board today, but continue to guide the board through those challenges from here on out.

You’re the son of Democratic state Sen. William Conley. What do you say to people who say your appointment is political?

I would ask them to judge me on my work and to withhold their judgment for now. And if they don’t think I’m performing well, let me know.

There’s a perception that the board itself is too political, particularly after Mayor Elorza called for former Chairman Juan Pichardo to step down last week. Do politics play too much of a role on the board?

I think we start to conflate the issue of politics and public concern. Very often elected officials are the identifiable voice of the general consensus of the public. I think in this instance, what we saw is the City Council and the mayor voicing the general consensus of the public. As an appointed official, I still represent the city of Providence and I need to be able to recognize the fact that when the city doesn’t feel that the board is doing its job well, we need to identify what those concerns are and we need to fix them.

There is often frustration from the public that the board doesn’t take enough action against certain bars and clubs. If you know where the trouble is, why can’t you just close them?

We are a quasi-judicial board and we can only rule on the evidence that is presented to us when we’re sitting as a board. We can’t make assumptions about what will happen. We can’t rely on public complaints as proof that these things are happening. I like analogies: basically I think a lot of people want the Board of Licenses to peer into the future like “Minority Report” and see that a crime will occur at this club at some point in the future and shut the club down now. That’s not how the American judicial system works, and fundamentally, we’re a portion of the American judicial system.

There are businesses that you do take action against that turn around and successfully appeal their cases with the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR). What can be done to either limit or end the practice of DBR overturning so many of the board’s decisions?

I think we’re halfway through the process. The first portion of the process was to correct some historic errors the board was making. And I know there was some historic concerns that businesses weren’t given a fair shake. I would agree with that. I don’t think that’s presently what’s happening with the board. I think the board has really updated how it’s making findings, substantiating its findings with evidence and really honing in on the legal standards. The fact that we’re still losing at DBR is because there is only one hearing officer [Catherine Warren] and that hearing officer is so business-friendly that she doesn’t bother to apply the legal standards to the businesses. She only applies them to the city.

Some would say it’s good to be business-friendly. Why does DBR get it wrong?

There are legal standards in place. Being business-friendly doesn’t allow you to circumvent legal standards.

I know defense attorneys who say the board can be unfair, that businesses get treated differently based on their location in the city. What do you say?

In my experience on the board, I haven’t seen that happen. I’ve seen balanced decisions really based on the merits that are on the record. I do want to reiterate I don’t think that was always true. But I believe it is true and it has been for a little while.

What are your other top priorities as chairman of the board?

I think we need to make it easier to operate a business in the city. Everyone always likes to talk about how there are only a couple of bad apples, and on the whole, I agree with that. I think we need to recognize businesses that have been operating in good standing for a long time and remove some of the burdens they have to being profitable and develop their business. A lot of that has to do with policies and procedures on the administrative side. At the same time, we have to really confront DBR when it comes to these bad apples.

People say the license renewal process can be tedious. What are you doing to address that?

We’re in the middle of beta program that allows all of this to happen online. The goal is to automate a lot of the steps of this procedure and to make it much easier for businesses. In the same way you do your banking, you can do your licensure.

Is there anything in the works to provide relief for businesses that need minor licenses instead of things like liquor licenses?

There are two areas of the law that require those small licenses. One is from the state legislature and the other is the Providence Code of Ordinances. I don’t have jurisdiction over either. To the extent that I can advocate for removing these small licenses, I will. But we don’t really have that under our jurisdiction.

A report commissioned by the City Council recommended that the chairman of the Board of Licenses be an attorney. You’re a lawyer. Do you agree that the chairman should have a legal background?

No, actually. I think the quality of the counsel that supports the board is sufficient. The chairperson on any municipal board can look to their staff to help them out. Their obligation is not to be an expert. Their obligation is to use the experts available to them.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

[I’d like to know] when people want to have board meetings. I hear one thing from one group of people and another thing from another group of people. What days of the week? Do they want to have all entertainment licenses on one day of the month? I really want to work with the public and the business owners to get this into place.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan