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ACLU strikes out again in attempt to repeal of nuisance property ordinance

Ald. Matt O'Shea. | Sun-Times file photo

The American Civil Liberties Union tried again Wednesday — and failed — to persuade Chicago aldermen to repeal a tool they use to go after problem businesses because of the ordinance’s adverse impact on victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities.

Instead, the City Council’s License Committee approved a weaker ordinance precipitated by a change in state law that forbids municipalities from suspending or revoking the license of a business where incidents of domestic violence on the premises are reported.

From now on, calls to 911 stemming from domestic violence or pertaining to “someone’s disability” will not count toward the three calls within 90 days that could trigger action against the property owner.

The lesser change wasn’t good enough for the ACLU and more than 20 other organizations. They wanted a total repeal of a nuisance property ordinance that generally triggers penalties whenever three or more calls for police services resulting in a case report are made about a property within 90 days.

“These kinds of laws are not at all effective and actually undermine public safety. By linking its enforcement to the number of calls for police services, it deters crime victims and their neighbors from contacting the police when they need help and encourages the displacement of vulnerable individuals from their homes,” Jenna Prochaska, staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois, was quoted as saying in a news release.

Kate Walz, senior director of Litigation and Housing Justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, added, “No one should be afraid to call the police when they need help. In order to truly protect crime victims and keep our communities safe, we urge the city not to take a half step in enacting these carve-outs. The risk of harm to our communities is too great to leave this ordinance in place and we urge the city to repeal it entirely.”

Last fall, the carve-out for domestic violence calls stalled in a City Council committee amid concerns about relinquishing a power aldermen covet.

South Side Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) noted then that the nuisance property ordinance has been used to go after establishments where shootings and even homicides have taken place.

“I’m concerned that I’m losing tools that I might be able to use to close down a problem business in my ward,” she said on that day.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said then he was more concerned that bar owners or hair stylists might be discouraged from reporting incidents of domestic abuse for fear of putting their licenses in jeopardy.

But none of that mattered to aldermen — hypersensitive to headlines generated by the controversial River North bar Bottled Blonde — who say they need the tools to remain in place.

Their primary concern was to preserve ways to go after problem taverns, convenience and packaged-good stores that become magnets for crime.

On Wednesday, aldermen swallowed their fears and approved the domestic violence exception. Aldermen Scott Waguespack (32nd), John Arena (45th) and James Cappleman (46th) voted against the lesser change. They favored the total repeal championed by the ACLU.