Shared from the 8/30/2018 The Providence Journal eEdition


Cafe owners sue town over closure


Al Saccoccia and his wife, Cheryl, opened the Music Man Cafe, in Johnston, in 2015. But they are now suing the town over actions it took against the business, leading to the closing of the cafe in 2017. [THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL FILE PHOTOS / STEVE SZYDLOWSKI]


Johnston Councilman Richard J. DelFino III pressed the business over parking and moved to revoke the cafe’s operating licenses.

PROVIDENCE — The owners of a Johnston restaurant are suing the town and each of its council members for voting them out of business last year at a meeting they didn’t attend, over issues that had been resolved.

The unanimous vote — not to renew the restaurant’s operating licenses — was the culmination of ongoing friction between Alfred and Cheryl Saccoccia, owners of the Music Man Café on Plainfield Pike, and District 1 Councilman Richard DelFino III, who persuaded his fellow council members to pull the licenses.

Their story was the subject of a Hummel Report investigation that ran in the Providence Sunday Journal in March. The couple was never able to reopen the business and remain more than $100,000 in debt.

“It’s just one of those classic Rhode Island stories of governmental overreach, and the risk that it could happen to anybody,” said Matthew Fabisch, an attorney for the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights, which is representing the Saccoccias.

Fabisch filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Superior Court.

The nonprofit center, formed in 2011, describes itself as a libertarian public-interest law firm, focusing on areas such as fiscal responsibility and transparency, free speech and property rights. It takes up only cases involving government.

“One of the things we’re interested in is improving the business climate in Rhode Island, and certainly when state power is used to target and discriminate against small business, that’s not good for any small businesses,’’ Fabisch said, explaining why the center is representing the couple.

The lawsuit mirrors much of what was reported in March: DelFino, whose district includes The Music Man, began giving the Saccoccias a hard time within months of their opening in 2015 about customers parking on the state road in front of the plaza, which held the café and a half-dozen other businesses. The R.I. Department of Transportation later determined that all the cars parked on the side of Plainfield Pike were parked legally.

The Saccoccias had paid $2,453 in back taxes owed to the town when DelFino — raising the issues of parking and taxes — made a motion at a meeting in June 2017 not to renew the restaurant’s operating license, even though the councilman was on record at the previous meeting saying the parking situation had improved.

There was no discussion prior to the vote, which was unanimous. The council president, Anthony Verado, told the Hummel Report in March he was relying on DelFino’s recommendation and did no independent research before voting, because the restaurant was in District 1. Verado said other council members likewise did the same if there were issues in his district.

“Nobody asked any questions; there was no conversation, no debate,” Fabisch said after reviewing the meeting transcripts. “That’s not a typical way any town council operates in my experience.”

While the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, Giovanni D. Cicione, a co-founder of the Stephen Hopkins Center, filed a claim in July with the Town of Johnston for $2.2 million. In it, Cicione noted that the Saccoccias had lost their life savings and still faced outstanding debts.

“Financially it’s killed us,” Alfred Saccoccia told The Hummel Report this week, adding that the couple, which had spent $100,000 to buy and renovate a restaurant that came with three licenses, sold it for $43,000 with no licenses. But the couple had to pay the landlord $21,000 in rent for the time it was shut down by the town, until it was sold, with no revenue coming in.

Cheryl Saccoccia now works as a waitress at another restaurant in Johnston and her husband has been driving for Uber. “You wake up in sweats thinking about it,” said Saccoccia, who has had ongoing health problems. “They ruined our life. It should have never happened.”

DelFino, elected in 2016, is not running for reelection. He did not respond to a call on Wednesday seeking comment.

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