Alderman Mike Shields accused the City Council's Public Safety and Licensing Committee Monday night of treating minority-owned bars and restaurants unfairly.
"The way they drill people of color is a problem with me," Shields said in the hallway during the committee meeting.
Shields' comments came after the committee asked Gerald Bester, an African-American businessman from Milwaukee, a series of tough questions about his plans to open a new restaurant in Uptown.
Alderman Aron Wisneski, chairman of the committee, forcefully rejected Shields' contention.
"As usual, he (Shields) didn't do his homework to make an informed decision," Wisneski said.
Wisneski said the committee asks every business that's applying for a liquor license a series of questions designed to probe the applicant's ability to run a safe business.
He acknowledged the committee is tougher than its predecessors, but said it's tougher because the council allowed people to sell alcohol without doing enough research into their backgrounds. The result: Unsafe and unruly bars that brought down the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
"Our committee is doing its job," Wisneski said. "We don't hand out licenses like candy. Liquor licenses are a serious job for our committee."
Every meeting the committee calls bars and restaurants before it to review recent police incidents in or near the establishment. License holders are typically asked to explain what happened and are given a series of actions meant to control crowds and cut down on violent incidents.
For example, the committee asks bars to install a certain type of video camera to help monitor the premises. Another common request is an electronic ID checker that forces the bars and liquor stores to scan IDs of people buying alcohol.
The committee will also ask bars to close early if police incidents are occurring after 1 a.m.
Occasionally, bars choose not to comply and turn in their liquor license. Cash Money, a former bar on S. Memorial Drive, shut down after a murder and a shooting occurred nearby.
Other times, businesses are denied. A proposed Sixth Street convenience store failed to win a liquor license because neighboring businesses were opposed.
Mostly, though, bar owners are called in, scolded for police incidents and ordered to work with the City Attorney's office to make improvements. The underlying threat is the city will pull a business's liquor license if it doesn't comply.
"We have to do a better job of making sure they're good neighbors, not bad neighbors," Wisneski said about liquor license holders. "Alcohol makes people do stupid things. Good tavern owners know how to do things responsibly. They know how to be good neighbors."
As for business owners of color, Wisneski said the committee is tough to all applicants and license holders. He pointed to a tough series of questions Karley Barcalow, who is white, went through about her new restaurant on Lathrop Ave. They were similar to the questions Bester and another applicant, who is Hispanic, had to answer Monday night. (Barcalow, who received committee approval, said after the meeting she was a little flustered by the committee's questions.)
To ensure fair treatment, Wisneski said the committee works off a list of standard questions it asks all applicants, Wisneski said.
He added that while the committee is tough, it grants most liquor license applications.
"It is very rare we deny a license," Wisneski said. "A person would have had to have committed a felony. But we take this seriously. We don't just rubber stamp applications. We have high expectations for them (license holders)."