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The Mayor Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

Bootleggers need not apply

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Guy August 31, 2012 at 12:23 AM
Understood, Terry. But I can envision a scenario (with a different cast of characters, of course) where a liquor license holding alderman may feel it's in his best interests to vote with the mayor rather than represent his constituents. Lets say his establishment serves an underage patron - will his license be suspended? For how long? Will it be over a big tourist weekend? The mayor has the final say in this matter. I think the potential for future abuse outweighs any gain.
Terry Flanagan August 31, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Guy, ultimately this is decsion is probably better left in the hands of the voters. There is a potential for anyone to be pressured into voting one way or another. It's not just liquor licenses that can be used as pressure points. Anyone who runs for office should recognize the potential for this kind of pressure and should decide whether or not they are able to cope with it. If they can't, then public office may not be right for them or fair to their constituents. If the voters feel their interests have been betrayed by those who represent them then they need to vote that person out of office. Interestingly enough, we do background checks on liquor license holders and make every effort to assure that the license holder is a person of good moral character. We don't have that kind of check done for all of our elected officials. So in some respects a liquor license holder may actually be a better risk than some of the people we elect. In the end though, I think it should be the voter's decision.
Colin C. August 31, 2012 at 04:15 PM
Terry, it is a difficult issue but I still see the opening of a potential can of worms if license holders are allowed to serve a s City employees or officials. Consider the extreme possibility: the mayor holds a license and his or her establishment suffers repeated violations as was the case with several liquor license holders in Geneva and St. Charles over the past several years, apparently due to careless employees. The appearance of a conflict of interest seems unavoidable and the resulting potential problems enormous. In addition, it places an undue burden on our police department. They are forced to be the "bad guys" in this situation, especially if the mayor is very effective and popular. However, if the people of Geneva wish to change this ordinance it should be brought forth at a time and in a manner in which the issue is clear and no personalities are involved. Perhaps a referendum might be held as a part of a regular election at a time when no license holder is running for office or has declared an interest in running.
Terry Flanagan August 31, 2012 at 06:14 PM
Colin, Sam Hill expressed his intent to bring this forward at a future COW meeting. And certainly it will benefit from a full discussion. I would hope that the appearance of a conflict and any uncomfortable law enforcment situations are not the deciding factors. Imagine if we applied those standards to all of our problems. A lot of injustices and abuses would continue to this day. Appearances can be deceiving as the old saw says and enforcing the law can be difficult in any number of situations, particularly when it comes to people in authority. But the police have sworn an oath and elected officials have sworn an oath to perform their duties, not just if it happens to be easy. In the end, all we have is the law and our expectation to equal treatment under the law. The current state law already allows a license holder to serve on the city council. This was not decided by referendum. Nor was the previous rule disallowing it. I believe the city council can make the decision without anyone concluding that it was done for this one particular license holder. When you brought up the issue of fire pits, I don't think anyone thought the city council made their decision to accomodate you. When Zac Ploppert recommended that the fines for underage drinking be increased, no one claimed that the city council was doing a favor for Zac Ploppert. I think this issue can be resolved fairly by the council without going to referendum.
Jennifer Anderson October 02, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Now let us sign the petition to encourage the official vote on the matter. Then let the people decide with their vote who is best qualified to be First Ward Alderman. http://www.change.org/petitions/geneva-city-council-amend-the-geneva-liquor-license-ordinance#

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