I listened to the mayor’s sermon at the end of the last COW meeting on the evils of allowing a liquor license holder to serve on the City Council. The mayor is certainly entitled to his opinion, but I couldn’t help but feeling there was a great deal of animosity directed toward Mike Olesen in that lecture. Although the mayor never mentioned Oleson by name, everyone knows that Olesen spoke before the council about changing this portion of the code. The mayor implied that Oleson is the sole impetus behind the policy change discussion. Of course, this argument ignores the fact that many of the issues brought before the City Council are often at the behest of a single individual.
However, this was not the first time doubts about barring liquor license holders from serving on the City Council have been expressed. A number of aldermen voiced concerns at the Aug. 22, 2011, COW meeting before the new liquor code was adopted. Joe Stanton, who was part of the task force working on drafting the new ordinance, argued against following the state statute and spoke in favor of keeping the current city restrictions in place.
Since at least January of 2006, when it appeared in Public Act 94-0289, state statute has allowed an exception for towns with populations of 50,000 or less, providing the license is for a restaurant and the license holder abstains from votes on liquor issues. Some people wondered why we hadn’t changed our ordinance to match the state. Maybe the council bought into Joe’s arguments and maybe they wanted to get the other changes done before and thought about addressing this issue later. I don’t know, but I do know that our laws are not so perfect that we can’t consider revising them from time to time.
Despite the mayor’s laundry list of potential permanent conflict of interest issues a liquor license holder might face, the vast majority of these issues pertain to issuing liquor licenses or permits and have almost always been passed unanimously. The last dispute I can recall occurred several years ago over a package liquor store on the east side. Although a liquor license holder would have to recuse himself/herself when it comes to liquor issues, the outcome of the vote is not likely to be affected. Unless the entire city council consists of liquor license holders, I’m pretty sure that these issues will be resolved satisfactorily.
There’s another reason we should revise the ordinance to match the state. Chapter 2 Section 4-2-10 of our current code excludes “corporations or limited liability companies if any ... member, … would not be eligible to receive a license hereunder for any reason”. In my opinion, not backed up by any legal knowledge or authority, this clause might prohibit members of the two golf clubs and the American Legion from serving on the council since these organizations hold liquor licenses. Although legion posts and golf clubs would meet the definition of clubs in the liquor code, they are also legal corporations. That is an ambiguity that would be rendered moot if we adopt the state rules and allow license holders to serve on the city council. However, even if club members are allowed to serve on the council through some legal wordplay, is there really that much of a difference between any potential conflict of interest they would have versus a restaurant owner?
We have to ask ourselves whether this particular conflict of interest is so egregious that we need to deny this one group of people the opportunity to serve on the City Council. The mayor has said it poses additional problems for the police, but should enforcement of any of the city ordinances be problematic where city officials are involved? I can understand that situations can be awkward, but I would hope that the mayor is not suggesting that elected officials are receiving preferential treatment. The police have a difficult job and no one wants to see it made any more difficult, but I believe that the police have always received, and will continue to receive, the full support of the city council and the administration in the performance of their duties.
So why should conflict of interest be an issue in this case and not in others? I’m fairly certain that the aldermen recognize the potential for conflict of interest and make every effort to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. Ron Singer regularly abstains from voting on issues pertaining to the American Legion, of which he is a member. Dawn Vogelsburg abstains on issues that involve people she’s working with. Bob Piper even abstained from voting on this very liquor ordinance, although that one still baffles me. I think City Council members recognize when there is an actual conflict, or even a perceived conflict, and refrain from voting on those issues. The fact is that the city council deals with potential conflicts on a regular basis and I don’t believe it’s been a disruptive process or that it has negatively impacted the city.
But there are potentially other conflicts that the mayor didn’t mention, such as his relationship with Joe Stanton, who also served on the liquor task force, and the fact that Joe Stanton also ran Esther Barclay’s aldermanic campaign during the last election in the 1st Ward. This would be the ward where Mike Olesen would be running if the liquor code is changed. I don’t believe that this is a factor in the position the mayor has taken, but there are always the problems of “morality, perception, image” as the mayor mentioned in his comments last Monday. Some people are bound to get the wrong idea on just about any action a governing body takes. So let’s stop pretending that this issue is any different from the others and fix our ordinance.