TAMPA — The Soho Saloon is suing the city of Tampa over a City Council vote to deny it a permit to pour mixed drinks along with beer and wine.
At 410 S Howard Ave., the saloon is surrounded by bars, including MacDinton's Irish Pub across the street.
But some neighbors and city officials worry that South Howard's bar scene is oversaturated.
And less than a week before the City Council's final vote on the request, police went to the saloon and found hard liquor in plain view, underage University of Tampa students with drinks in their hands and a small gambling pool taking bets on the Super Bowl.
But that is not what is at issue, according to the saloon's 50-page lawsuit, which was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court. To bolster its case, the suit includes quotes from an assistant city attorney cautioning the council that it couldn't base a denial on the police allegations.
At the Feb. 7 hearing, City Council member Mary Mulhern moved for denial based on the saloon's request to the city to waive three rules. One requires 35 parking spaces, not the 16 the bar has. Another requires a city waiver when there are residences within 1,000 feet (the closest home is 33 feet away). The third requires a similar waiver when there are other stores, restaurants or bars selling alcohol within 1,000 feet (there are 17).
Every time the council approves more bars, Mulhern said before the vote, "We open the door for approving others." Her motion passed 4-3, with Mike Suarez, Frank Reddick and Lisa Montelione voting no.
At that same hearing, saloon owner Michael Disser apologized for what police found. He said the liquor was on the premises because the bar had a charity liquor license for Gasparilla and bought the booze in advance of that, but ended up selling much less than expected. He said investigators tried to buy hard liquor when they came in, but his staff refused to sell.
Disser also said the college students were carded and refused service, but did not explain how they came to be found drinking.
As for the gambling, Disser said he knew about it and, yes, he profited from it, but every bar in South Tampa was doing it.
Disser told the council he was not trying to increase his occupancy, but wanted to get more money from the customers he does have, and selling spirits is a way to do that. As it is, he said, he's losing money.
The council's final hearing followed a Jan. 24 initial public hearing at which Mulhern's first motion for denial failed on a 4-2 vote. Instead, at that meeting the council ended up voting to give its initial approval to the permit on the condition that the bar's kitchen remain open during all hours of operation.
Disser's lawsuit contends that vote of approval with that condition are the only things that should have been at issue on Feb. 7. The suit contends there is "no rational basis" for treating the Soho Saloon differently from other, similarly situated establishments. It seeks more than $15,000 in damages and a court ruling that it is entitled to sell liquor as well as beer and wine.
On Monday, City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. declined to comment on the suit.
Tampa lawyer Eric Page, who represents Disser, said the saloon remains open but is sustaining damages as a result of the city's decision.
"It's unfortunate that this is where we are," he said. "We're pretty much going to let the appellate process go forward and will seek the relief outlined in the complaint."