Liquor license law relaxed after heated debate about aldermanic prerogative

SHARE Liquor license law relaxed after heated debate about aldermanic prerogative

The city’s first liquor license issued after Prohibition, displayed at the Berghoff restaurant. | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to make it easier to get a liquor license near churches, schools and day care centers cleared a City Council committee Thursday, but not before a heated debate about aldermanic prerogative.

That’s the unwritten rule giving each aldermen iron-fisted control over zoning and licensing issues in his or her ward. It’s a tradition Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has vowed to end because it’s at the root of nearly every City Hall corruption scandal, as well as the current scandal that threatens to bring down Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

Currently, for a liquor license to be issued within 100 feet of a sensitive area (including churches, schools, hospitals or senior citizen or day care centers), the Illinois General Assembly must approve the exemption, and it must be signed by the governor.

But an ordinance championed by Emanuel and approved by the License Committee would shift that responsibility from the state legislature to the local liquor control commissioner.

That’s what troubles Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) — the thought that the liquor commissioner could ride roughshod over the wishes of the local alderman.

“I wouldn’t want a bar near a senior home, or a veteran’s home where I’m dealing with assisting veterans who are battling PTSD and alcohol abuse, or a school,” O’Shea said.

Liquor Commissioner Shannon Trotter assured O’Shea the local alderman would be asked for a recommendation on waiver applications and that “deference” would be given to that advice.

“You know your communities best and we look for your recommendation,” Trotter said.

That was not enough to appease O’Shea. Not after he was told the liquor commissioner would not be bound by the local alderman’s recommendation.

“I don’t think anybody in this body should be comfortable with that. I know I’m not. And the people that I represent are not,” O’Shea said.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) represents a downtown and River North area that is saturated with bars, including the notorious Bottled Blonde, now tied up in court.

Reilly acknowledged the current waiver process is “antiquated” and “clunky.” But he argued the cumbersome process “does serve in a way as a potential veto for a local alderman so long as they have a good working relationship with their state legislators.”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) took the opposite view. Burnett pointed to vacant storefronts near his ward office on the 1400 block of West Chicago Avenue — simply because it’s “right behind a church.”

“Across the street, which was further than 100 feet, had bustling restaurants. … Down the block had bustling restaurants. The block that I was on was the only block that didn’t get a restaurant because we were [near] a church,” Burnett said.

“And the funny thing is, if you go to all the restaurants, all the priests are in there drinking. That’s the ironic part about it. … The priests want restaurants in the neighborhood where they can eat and drink.”

At that point, Burnett’s colleagues dissolved into laughter. Burnett let the laughter die down, then turned serious.

“Because the space is so small and the rent was so high, no one wanted to go through the process of paying a lot of other money for a lawyer to go down to Springfield to try to get the exemption done,” Burnett said.

“So those places are still vacant — and I’m talking for years.”

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