Follow the money.

That's all you have to do if you want to know how the State Liquor Board is going to rule on a bar license, City Councilman Steve Kozachik contends.

"The people with the most money usually get the decisions in their favor," Kozachik said.

Kozachik said the board holds most of its meetings in Phoenix, where prospective bar owners have time and money to hire lawyers and appear in person. He believes that is why the board rules against half of the city's recommendations for license denials. While local governments investigate liquor license applicants and make recommendations, the final say rests with the state.

The current system stacks the deck in favor of the applicants who have a greater ability to trek to Phoenix for a hearing, at the expense of residents, who are typically resigned to sending their protests in writing.

"We all know there's more value in hearing a person speak than to just read it on a piece of paper," Kozachik said. If residents want to be heard, "they have to take a day off of work, find somebody to take care of their kids, and find a way to pay all those expenses just to bow before the bureaucrats in Phoenix."

So Kozachik is spearheading a campaign to get the state board to hold hearings in Tucson for Pima County cases where the local jurisdiction votes to deny liquor licenses.

Lee Hill, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, said the agency tries to accommodate Tucson whenever it can. She said the board has held two meetings in Tucson within the past 12 months. The most recent meeting was July 12.

"What we do is, when we gather enough hearings that are in Tucson, that's when we have our meetings (there)," Hill said. "If we can't wait, we'll mix it in with a Phoenix hearing as well and hold it in Phoenix."

But Kozachik said a few token hearings are not enough to properly address the issue.

"This is a matter of local representation. ... People ought to have the right to make a local decision," Kozachik said. "Who knows what the community needs better than the people who live there?"

Hill noted that opponents have a chance to voice their concerns - even if they don't make it to Phoenix - with a written protest, "so it's not a matter of showing up to be heard."

Kozachik said the process is also inherently conflicted because every approved license puts money in the state coffers.

"The only reason the State Liquor Board is exerting control over this is because it's a revenue stream for the state," he said. "They are balancing their budgets on the backs of local residents."

Last year, liquor licenses and fines amounted to $8.8 million, more than 80 percent of which was allocated to the state's general fund, with the rest distributed to counties and various state agencies.

The Mint is example

Kozachik said the recent case of The Mint bar liquor-license transfer typifies the need for local hearings.

On June 19 the council voted to deny the Mint's new owners a license transfer, citing complaints from area residents, particularly concerns about the owners' past and their other business, the Wild Boys, a troupe of male strippers.

The state is scheduled to decide on the Mint application on Sept. 6. The bar will be represented by attorney Thomas Aguilera.

"It's a perfect example of a dive bar hiring an attorney as a means to intimidate people who object," Kozachik said. "So it's less likely those who want to protest will show up in Phoenix, (negating) the local voice."

But Aguilera said his clients have "in no way, shape or form" intimidated anyone and are pursuing the only option they have left to protect their business investment.

He said his clients must hire an attorney under the Arizona Administrative Code because they are organized as a corporation. "By law, (they) cannot represent themselves unless they are licensed to practice law."

Aguilera said he believes his clients met all the legal requirements to be granted a license, but the City Council mentally co-mingled the Mint Bar with the Wild Boys, which led to the rejected license transfer.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at ddaronco@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.