Liquor license or public office? Geneva to consider allowing both
GENEVA – Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns condemned aldermen for directing staff to prepare an ordinance amending the city’s liquor code to allow liquor license holders to serve as aldermen.
Burns said the 8-2 vote at committee this week amounted to a political endorsement of Stockholm’s owner Michael Olesen. Olesen declared he would run for alderman in the 1st Ward after 1st Ward Alderman Sam Hill announced he would not seek a fourth term.
State law changed about four years ago, allowing residents in municipalities of less than 50,000 in population to hold liquor licenses and serve as aldermen or trustees if the majority of their business is food sales, officials said.
Second Ward Alderman Richard Marks and 5th Ward Alderman Craig Maladra voted not to change the ordinance.
“What transpired … was an endorsement of a candidate for office by the Committee of the Whole,” Burns said. “There was no consideration given to the integrity of the council, nor to the difficulty exacted on staff, including police chief and his team.”
Geneva Police Chief Steve Mexin said he would not favor changing the ordinance because of the potential of creating a conflict of interest.
Burns said the reason for the license restriction is to head off real and perceived conflicts of interest.
He said a liquor license holder could recuse himself from discussions and votes on liquor-related issues. But Burns said the list of issues to be recused from would be expansive, from parking regulations to street closures, rendering the official ineffective.
Burns said when the late Chuck Lencioni was a building staff person, he had to forfeit his liquor license at Firehouse 5, which is now where Stockholm’s is located at 306 W. State St.
“And we hold elected officials to a similar standard,” Burns said. “We are [considering] changing a law ... to accommodate one individual.”
The issue will go to the full City Council for consideration.
Olesen, who ran a failed bid for alderman in 2009, said state law had changed by then, but he would have required the city to change its ordinance to serve.
“I don’t know if I would look at it that way, but that is Kevin’s opinion,” Olesen said. “As it’s being stated now, I would either have to give [the liquor license] up or city law would have to be changed in the month between the election and being sworn in.”
Olesen also disagreed that the conflicts of interest would be expansive.
“I don’t believe there are that many liquor-related issues that come before the City Council,” Olesen said. “If we are going to start looking at various conflicts of interest, everybody who is successful has conflicts of interest. It needs to be the people’s choice; let them decide who represents them.”
Olesen has owned an investment company in Geneva for 20 years and Stockholm’s for 10, he said. He also serves on the Geneva Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
First Ward Alderman Charles Brown said it was time to amend the city’s liquor code to reflect the changing times.
“I ran out of cereal for breakfast on Sunday, and I went to Walgreens,” Brown said. “They had wine on one side and breakfast cereal on the other. I think people who hold liquor licenses are perfectly reasonable people. Should they not run for alderman because of a liquor license?”
Second Ward Alderman Don Cummings said he had been ready to vote against a change until he considered what Olesen had to say.
“He said, ‘Let the people decide who they want to vote for,’ ” Cummings said. “I agree 100 percent with that. Who am I to sit here on the City Council and make a decision for people in some other ward? I would be saying to them, ‘You can’t manage to make a decision on your own, nor see potential conflicts.’ Somebody who does have a liquor license should be able to run or hold an elected seat.”
St. Charles, Batavia and Sugar Grove also do not allow liquor license holders to hold public office. As part of the list of restrictions for liquor license eligibility, St. Charles includes city employees and members of any board or commission.
Batavia City Administrator Bill McGrath said no one had ever complained that it stopped a potential candidate from seeking office. McGrath said in Batavia, he supports keeping the restriction.
“I absolutely think that the perception outweighs the true problems, from the number of liquor licenses and the applications for a liquor license,” McGrath said. “Liquor is one of those substances subject to heavy regulation.”
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