“We are now at the point of applied economy and it must be applied as far as possible so that all will feel it as all will benefit by it. I, therefore, recommend the abolition of the license commission. This will require a legislative act.
The clerical duties connected with the issuance of licenses, keeping of records and so forth, should be transferred to the office of the city clerk where there is ample clerical help to take care of it without increasing the number of employees of that office. This will bring about a saving of about $7500 per year which the city now badly needs.”
— From the Inaugural Address of Lowell Mayor Thomas J. Corbett, January 1927
As you can see, friction between the Lowell License Commission and the city administration (Corbett was a strong mayor under the city’s then-Plan B form of government) is nothing new.
Admittedly, the circumstances were much different in 1927. While news accounts of the time allude to some political or personal agenda being behind Mayor Corbett’s crusade, the real reason was the times themselves – it was 1927 – prohibition.
Manufacturing, serving and selling alcohol was illegal from 1920-1933. People were, of course, still drinking, but there was no license issued for a speakeasy or for making gin in your bathtub. Therefore, the License Commission, was not issuing and enforcing liquor licenses; they were mostly handling entertainment licenses for theaters and the like, considerable cutting down their workload.
On January 15, 1927, Corbett had a bill filed with the state Legislature requesting an amendment of the city’s Plan B charter to abolish the License Commission, transferring their duties to the City Clerk and City Council. One week prior, the City Council voted 10-5 to retain the Commission, despite the endorsement of Corbett’s plan by the Finance Committee.
“I want to protect myself.” Corbett told The Sun at the time. “If the council doesn’t abolish the commission then I must attempt to get the legislature to take the necessary action.”
On Feb. 24, 1927, Mayor Corbett stormed out of a hearing on the bill by the Committee on Cities at the Statehouse, angry that the chairman refused to postpone the hearing to grant City Solicitor Joseph P. Donahue more time to prepare his case. Corbett expressed disgust that Reps. Henry Achin Jr. and Victor Jewett, members of the Lowell Delegation, did not step up to co-operate with him on the effort.
The bill died on Beacon Hill.
In a compromise effort, the City Council then voted (10-5) to cut the salaries of the License Commissioners from $900 to $500 for the chairman, and from $850 to $450 for each of the two members. The chairman was former Mayor James B. Casey and members were Dr. James Rooney and Joseph McGrath.
Two weeks later the Council had a change of heart and voted to restore the higher salaries in a 9-6 vote.
In December of that year, Councilor Robert R. Thomas tried to revive the movement, bringing forth an ordinance to abolish the License Commission. The Council shot it down in a 9-6 vote.
The License Commission, a three member board that by statute must include at least one Democrat and one Republican, was established by state law in 1894.
The intent was to remove the business of issuing and enforcing liquor licenses from the purview of local boards of aldermen and selectmen, creating a commission untouched by politics (so much for that).
“It will now be possible for an alderman to act in his honorable position without being regarded as an object of suspicion,” Lowell Mayor William F. Courtney stated in his 1895 address. “The recent license scandals in neighboring cities and the charges of corruption and unfairness in connection there within this city has undoubtedly been the cause of the refusal of many men of high standing to accept the place.
“The men selected for the commission by my predecessor, and who will act during the coming year are possessed of integrity and honesty of purpose and have the confidence of the best citizens of the community. It is expected of them that they will perform their duties honesty and faithfully and that the city will be benefited by a wise and prudent administration of the affairs of their department.”