Robert O’Malley of Forest Hills recently walked into the American Legion Post on Metropolitan Avenue where he has been a long-time member and asked for a beer.
“He was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War,” Gene Burch, former commander of Post 1424, said. “And he can’t walk into a private club, go behind the bar and pour himself a drink.”
That is because O’Malley does not have a certified food handler’s permit from the city’s Department of Health, and going behind the bar and helping himself to a cold one would only lead to more trouble.
Post 1424 currently has $4,900 in fines from DOH in a series of incidents going back about two years.
The post has been on Metropolitan Avenue since the 1960s, and its more than 300 members have served from World War II theaters to the Persian Gulf.
The sticking point with the city is the bar where they enjoy a beer, a shot of whiskey or a mixed drink with friends.
And all because for the city’s purposes, the post is a restaurant.
Burch said the trouble began about two years ago when the state banned smoking in restaurants and clubs that were open to the public.
“But then the city extended that ban to private clubs, too,” he said.
The club was fined for members’ smoking, though Burch said the DOH gave them an out.
They could get a city license that allowed members to smoke if they sent the city agency proof that it is a private club, proof that the club owns the building, and their names and other identifying information on the club’s officers — and an annual fee of $100.
Then an inspector came in and fined them because that permit, along with their practice of serving ice in mixed drinks or a glass of soda, led to new requirements.
“They said we now needed to have a certified food handler in the club at all times,” Burch said. “I said ‘I’m a Vietnam veteran and I can’t make myself a drink in my own club?’ He looked at me and said ‘What’s a Vietnam veteran?’”
Later inspections led to one fine because the post refrigerator had a lock, and another because the ice machine did not.
But the lock that really got the health department going was the one on their gun cabinet, where members store rifles used in veterans’ and holiday ceremonies.
“I told the inspector that it was a gun cabinet, and he said he wanted to see what was inside,” Burch said. “I told him that only the post commander has the key, so he told me I was refusing to cooperate with the inspection.”
The Health Department’s take is the American Legion, like any other establishment that serves food or beverages, must have all required permits.
“The American Legion is full of heroes who put their lives on the line to defend democracy, but they must still have a permit, allow inspections and pay fines,” the DOH said in an email sent last Friday.
Burch said the Blackwater Inn, down the street on Metropolitan Avenue, has graciously offered to host a fundraiser on April 14 to help pay the fines. He also said the Legion is not looking for exemptions from health department standards, just some time to respond to the city’s requirements.
“We’ve always fixed any problems in a couple of days,” he said.
And they may get that time in the future, with elected officials at state and local levels submitting legislation that would allow veterans clubs a grace period to fix problems before having to pay fines that could bankrupt them.
A spokesman for Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said she will introduce legislation in the near future that would exempt religious, fraternal and charitable organizations that do not engage infoodpreparation from the requirements mandating the procurement of a foodhandler’s license.
“Granting an exemption from thefoodhandler’s license requirements, in limited circumstances, will alleviate an unnecessary burden that many organizations face, such as the American Legion in Forest Hills,” the statement said.
Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) and state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr.(D-Howard Beach) were far less diplomatic.
They are sponsoring companion legislation in Albany that would grant veterans groups 120 days to rectify violations before fines take effect.
“Assemblyman Miller and Sen. Addabbo understand the need for regulations,” a Miller spokesman said last Friday. “But the Health Department is treating a paper cut with an amputation approach.”
Addabbo said Tuesday that the situation has gotten out of hand.
“They’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “They are placing some demands on this club that they don’t place on restaurants.”
Addabbo reiterated that he and Miller are not asking for exemptions from health department and building department standards and inspections.
“But I think veterans do deserve some sort of break,” he said. “Give them 120 days to rectify any problems and if they act in good faith, that can save these groups steep fines.”
The senator, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he has spoken with veterans who have said they had to shut down their clubs because of similar fines. He hopes both bills get smooth passage in this term.
“Veterans are not usually a Democratic or Republican issue,” he said.