As Roger Amador sees it, one day a few years ago for no reason at all the city took $350,000 out of his pocket. More specifically, the City Council passed a ban on issuances of new liquor licenses and transfers of old liquor licenses in the 25th Ward. As a result, a prospective buyer withdrew a $350,000 offer on Amador’s store, Amador Liquors, at 1167 W. 18th St.
“I work hard. I pay my taxes, I obey the law, and now the city is taking away my right to sell my business–that has to be against the law,” he says. “They might as well just come and take the business from me.”
The issue concerns more than just Amador’s store; liquor-license bans have become the council’s favorite tool in curbing the proliferation of bars, lounges, and liquor stores. Since 1989 bans have been passed in all or parts of 37 of the city’s 50 wards.
The giants of the liquor industry, including the Miller Brewing Company, consider the bans unconstitutional. And they have set up a well-financed campaign to amend city law and allow licensees in “good standing,” like Amador, to sell their businesses. “It’s un-American to tell a guy who runs a good business, ‘Hey, you can’t sell that business,'” says Mort Siegel of the firm Siegel, Moses, Schoenstadt & Webster, which specializes in liquor law. “This is not the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union isn’t even the Soviet Union anymore.”
But many aldermen say the bans are needed to halt the spread of crime, litter, and noise that accompany obnoxious bars and stores. “Many civic organizations feel that this is a wonderful tool to stop any new bars from being established,” says 47th Ward Alderman Eugene Schulter, chairman of the council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection. “A weekend hardly goes by when I don’t get some complaint about fights or drug sales in a bar or people stumbling out of a bar and urinating on lawns. There are too many liquor establishments in this city; the problem must be brought under control.”
Traditionally, communities plagued by bad bars have attempted to vote whole precincts dry, a time-consuming and difficult task. In 1989 the City Council passed an ordinance that allowed the bans. “The idea was to draft an ordinance that would allow an alderman to preclude the issuances of new licenses in a specified area,” says Siegel. “The ban doesn’t do away with operating establishments, but it prevents new ones from opening.”
Eventually, the bans may also force some stores or bars to close, since a liquor license in a banned area can’t be sold or transferred, even to family members.
“At first you had aldermen ban licenses on this block or that block, and then you had a ripple effect,” says Siegel. “You had aldermen covering one or two precincts. Then all of a sudden you had aldermen coming in and saying, “I want to do this for our whole ward because we have too many licenses out there.”
As is the case with most local zoning or license matters, each ban was adopted with virtually no debate–sort of an institutional courtesy the council extends to its members. The ban that affects Amador’s liquor store, for instance, was passed at the urging of former 25th Ward alderman Juan Soliz. It blankets the entire Pilsen-area ward.
Amador says he didn’t know the ban had been proposed, let alone passed, until he attempted to sell his business. “My wife and I wanted to sell our store and buy a vending outfit in Riverside,” he says. “I had an offer for $350,000, for the building and the business. But when I went to the bank to finalize the deal they said I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t transfer the license. I can’t even transfer the license to my wife or son. So, now what happens if I die? My family can’t sell the store and they can’t operate it. Everything I worked for is gone and they have no means to support themselves.”
In outrage, Amador turned to his current alderman, Ambrosio Medrano. “Medrano was no help, he wouldn’t give me a straight answer,” says Amador. “It’s not like I’m a criminal. My wife and I have run this store since 1983 and we’ve never had any problems here. I sponsor baseball teams and give donations for the homeless. We generate over $50,000 a year if you count all the fees and taxes we pay. I built this business. It was my dream. I was raised in this community. I graduated from Harrison High. I served in the Marines. And now I’m getting knifed in the back.”
Amador is not the only licensee who’s worried. Kristina Patterson says she stays up late at night wondering about how she will finance her retirement now that she can’t sell her establishment, the Red Peppers Lounge, at 428 E. 87th St. “I’d like to retire in the next five or ten years, but my hands are tied,” she says. “The way the law works the liquor license dies with me. It’s unfair.”
Patterson, Amador, and others in the business support the so-called “Fairness Amendment,” which would allow licensees in “good standing” to sell their establishments or leave them to their heirs. The amendment, proposed by 16th Ward Alderman Shirley Coleman, has been sitting in Schulter’s committee for the last several months. And Schulter says he has no immediate plans to call it for debate.
“The bans are an important tool and the aldermen I have talked to want me to be very careful about losing them,” says Schulter. “We want to make sure that whatever we do we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Schulter says he sympathizes with licensees in good standing who want to transfer their businesses to family members (indeed, he has proposed an amendment that would allow them to do so). But their laments do not tell the full story, he adds. Last year the police made 6,942 arrests at bars and taverns, most involving people under 25. At least 64 taverns and liquor stores were repeatedly cited by the city for such offenses as selling booze to minors or blasting their loudspeakers.
“It’s not easy to shut a bad tavern down–it takes a lot of time and court dates,” says Schulter. “In the meantime, what do you tell people who are kept up because of the loud music coming out of a bar? What do you say to someone who has to repeatedly put up with brawls and broken bottles and loiterers? This is a massive problem.”
Schulter says his council committee has created an advisory group that includes liquor-industry representatives. He says, “I want to hear their concerns, too.” But there are few signs of conciliation. With the assistance of Siegel and his law firm, publicist Thom Serafin, and the Miller Brewing Company, the liquor industry held a rally for the Fairness Amendment in late April at a north-side restaurant. About 375 people showed up to eat free food, drink free beverages, and listen to Amador, Patterson, and other licensees tell their tales of woe.
“These are good men and women who are proud to be in this business,” says Siegel, repeating what he said at the event. “They don’t sell drugs. They don’t sell guns. What is the city trying to do to them–put them on welfare?”
The liquor-industry coalition is not to be taken lightly. Already its efforts on the amendment have won the support of aldermen Bernard Stone (50th), Brian Doherty (41st), and Jim Laski (23rd). The same group of lawyers and publicists defeated a vote-dry attempt last summer by residents of Lincoln Park. “Let me tell you, these guys are players; they know how the system works,” says one City Hall insider. “They put the little guys up front to tell their sob stories. But basically we’re not talking about a bunch of ma-and-pa operators. The whole liquor industry views this ordinance as a threat.”
The ordinance that permits the bans was unsuccessfully challenged in 1991, but Siegel says he might file a new suit. “The city will tell you the law has been tested in court, but what happened is that a lawyer without a great deal of experience filed a suit and lost,” he says. “We have carefully analyzed that complaint, and we are convinced that the proper issues were not raised. We’re talking about a serious constitutional violation: you don’t have to be a lawyer to know that you can’t take people’s property without due process. And that is what is happening here.”
Siegel insists he would rather have the matter settled without a court battle. But it doesn’t seem likely that Coleman’s Fairness Amendment will soon be called for a vote. “I am willing to listen to their concerns, but I am not naive,” says Schulter. “A lot of the people complaining about the bans are the first people to go into court to defend the bad guys who are regular violators of the law. I’m not saying that licensees shouldn’t be entitled to a court defense. But I feel that the people who are organizing these demonstrations should at least be sensitive to our concerns. I feel strongly that they should at least try to show that the industry is interested in self-policing. I’d like to know what they are going to do about getting the bad bars and stores to clean up their acts. Then maybe we can talk about Alderman Coleman’s amendment.”