September 16, 2009

Liquor, parking, street lights occupy City Council

The City Council met last night and voted:
  • Decorative street lights on Lathrop, yes
  • Alternate side-of-the-street-parking during winter, yes.
  • A third chance for a grocery's store's liquor license, no.
  • Replace softball lights at Island Park, yes.

The arguments weren't always pretty, as Alderman Greg Helding noted, raising the point about not watching the making of sausages or legislation. But in the end the council at least finished with some long-simmering issues.

Liquor took up much of the agenda. One issue that passed without discussion was Gerald Bester's application for a conditional use permit to open a restaurant and bar at 1501 Washington Ave., in The Vault's former space. That was approved unanimously, pending the previously stipulated conditions regarding a full kitchen and a business plan.

More controversy attended a petition from Baldwinder Singh of Max Magic Supermarket at 1007 Washington Ave. for "permission to exceed the Class A quota limit." But it was just a "technicality of state law," according to Alderman Aron Wisneski, whose point was supported by City Attorney Rob Weber.

The issue here involves the sale of this small grocery store, and whether its license to sell liquor can, essentially, be transferred to the new owner. "What if this were a Pick 'n Save, or a Piggly Wiggly?" asked Alderman David Maack, arguing in favor of working with the prospective buyer to make sure that "a small grocery store in an under-served area" isn't forced to close. "It could go out of business, becoming an eyesore. Everywhere else we have a grandfather clause." A motion to send the question back to committee failed, and the petition was approved 11 - 4.

Another grocery store's license did not fare as well. The "Class A" retail license of Sam's Liquor, at 965 Dr. M. L. King Jr. Drive was "nonrenewed," after two violations involving the sale of liquor not bought from a wholesaler.

In February, the store, owned by Bhupinder Kaur Bhati, was cited for selling 30 bottles of liquor without proper records, as required by state statutes. Then, in June, it was cited again, this time for selling 7 such bottles. The store's attorney, Bob Keller, conceded the violations, but said "the penalty should be sufficient, but not excessive. Revoking the license is the most drastic step you could take," he said, noting that liquor constituted 80% of the "grocery" store's sales. He said the owners, who do not speak English, "did not cause a safety issue or disruption in the neighborhood,"

Alderman Jim Kaplan was unconvinced: "This is the necessary step," he said. "Counselor, you made my case (with the 80% sales figure). This store is across from a school."

The store's only defender was Alderman Michael Shields. "There are other punishments available," he said. "The committee is trying to put everyone out of business. We should be more sensitive to businesses."

Maack rejected that argument, said the 30 bottles sold in February were "probably stolen," and Shields' pro-business argument is "good and dandy for the media" but the store was caught four months later violating the same regulations. Kaplan and Wisneski again defended the committee recommendation. "After weighing all the evidence, we decided this place should not have a license. The council agreed; the vote was 14-1, with only Shields in opposition.

Winter parking was another heated issue, as the council voted 11-4 to extend alternate side of the street parking to seven days a week from December through March. The move -- adding weekends to the existing weekdays rule -- is expected to give snowplows a better opportunity to clear streets of snow, and incidentally may save the city $15,000.

"It's an inconvenience for some, but a benefit to the city," said Helding. Alderman Sandy Weidner demurred, saying inner city drivers -- those without their own driveways or garages -- would be adversely affected.

Alderman Jeff Coe, noting that he doesn't have a driveway and would be one of those affected, nonetheless said the move would be for the betterment of the city. Alderman Ron Hart also spoke in favor, saying people he'd talked to said the council "is finally getting something right." Alderman Ray DeHahn said he'd heard the same reaction: "It's about time."

Q.A. Shakoor II said, "If it doesn't work, we can change it."

The only real questions were raised by Aldermen Jim Spangenberg, who asked whether city police have the manpower to enforce it, and Weidner, who questioned the savings: "I believe the overtime dollars that will be saved are minimal compared to the overall budget and difficulties this will cause." And Kaplan noted the only negative reaction he'd heard was that parking tickets would be "just another tax on us."

The vote in favor was 11-4, with Shileds, Weidner, Maack and Robert Mozol voting no.

The night's final controversial issue was six decorative streetlights requested by residents of the 700, 800 and 900 blocks of Lathrop Avenue, which cost $16,250 more than standard poles and lights, but only $9,100 more than has already been spent on them this year.

In some respects, the argument was whether the street in question is "residential" or "arterial," but in the end the fight was over whether there would be money left over in the Department of Public Works' budget. Some aldermen tried to take the necessary funds from DPW's contingency budget; others, like Helding, insisted, "I would be shocked if, at the end of the year, Public Works did not have $9,100 (available). Sometimes stuff goes over, sometimes it goes under." In fact, earlier in the evening, the council approved some Public Works contracts that came in under budget by that amount.

Tom Eeg, assistant commissioner of public works, was asked whether it was possible the department would have funds available; after all, besides the $9,000 the council found tonight, there's also the potential $15,000 in snowplow savings. He hemmed and hawed; Helding said, "Don't beat up on Tom; he's being a good soldier."

When it came to finding the money, Wisneski said, "the staff should be deciding where the money comes from." And Mozol, looking at the big picture, beyond even city limits, said, "The world is in this condition because we're spending money we don't have."

Nevertheless, after a motion to refer the question to the Public Works Department for funding failed, the council voted on taking the money from Public Works' capital budget. ""The motion passes 9-6; that was easy," joked Mayor John Dickert. Voting no were: Coe, DeHahn, Kaplan, Maack, Mozol and Terry McCarthy.


  1. Shields will support anything black.

  2. What an embarressing way to legislate.

  3. What is embarrassing about it? It sounds like the considered the issues, weighed their options, asked questions, and came to decisions. This is how I want my legislators to do their jobs.

    The guys in Madison meet behind closed doors to decide how to vote and the public sessions are just for show.

  4. Tom Eeg, assistant commissioner of public works, was asked whether it was possible the department would have funds available; after all, besides the $9,000 the council found tonight, there's also the potential $15,000 in snowplow savings.

    Great, make people park on alternative sides all winter to maybe save $15,000- then immediately blow the savings on six decorative streetlights!