Shaw: Mayor as liquor commissioner a shaky mix
By Andy Shaw March 19, 2013 9:12PM
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.
Updated: April 21, 2013 6:46AM
Suburban mayors typically wear two hats at the same time, thanks to the quirks of state law — mayor and liquor commissioner.
The latter title gives them authority over businesses that have liquor licenses in town, including penalizing businesses that violate the local liquor ordinance.
And because this is Illinois, it’s no surprise many of these mayors also tap their liquor establishments for campaign cash.
It’s perfectly legal but sleazy and a blatant conflict of interest — taking campaign money from places that you directly regulate.
Unfortunately, some mayors don’t get it. They wonder why the Better Government Association is concerned about the situation.
So let’s look at Bolingbrook for an answer, courtesy of interviews, police reports and documents obtained under Illinois’ freedom of information law.
In December 2011, Tailgaters Sports Bar & Grill hires a DJ who brings in two young women to help sell raffle tickets. They’re 18 and 19, under the legal drinking age of 21 but are served alcohol anyway, including a concoction that mixes several hard liquors.
The 19-year-old gets drunk and leaves by herself, runs into two male strangers at a nearby gas station, goes home with them and later claims that one of them raped her. The accused says it was consensual sex and no one’s been charged, but the case is still technically open.
Fast forward to a hearing in Bolingbrook in February 2012, where Tailgaters admits serving the underage women and agrees to pay a $1,500 fine. Approving the settlement is Mayor Roger Claar, who’s the village’s liquor commissioner.
Now fast forward to May 2012, when Claar’s campaign records a $1,000 donation from Tailgaters, according to state election records.
Hmmm. Three months after adjudicating a serious liquor license violation that may have led to a sexual assault, Claar takes a $1,000 donation from the same bar.
Claar insists that there was no quid pro quo and no connection between the liquor violation case and the donation. The bar, he says, contributes to his political fund every year.
He also calls the $1,500 fine a “pretty stiff penalty,” but we can’t tell because no fines have been levied since then, and Claar won’t provide the BGA with a list of earlier fines he imposed on offending establishments.
But even if he brought the hammer down hard on the bar and campaign cash didn’t buy any leniency, Claar’s acceptance of contributions from Tailgaters, or any liquor license holder in town, creates a perception problem.
Residents can reasonably ask him: Is your top priority your contributors or your community? And was there favoritism in the Tailgaters case?
The takeaway is clear: Mayors shouldn’t accept campaign contributions from those they’re overseeing — whether it’s contractors, municipal employees or liquor license holders. That’s Ethics 101.
In contrast to Bolingbrook and other suburbs, officials in Downers Grove get it. They have an ordinance banning political donations to village officials from those holding or seeking liquor licenses, with stiff penalties for violators.
State legislators can make it easy for Claar and other suburban mayors to avoid these conflicts — real or perceived — by amending the current law to do one of two things:
Take the liquor commissioner’s hat off the mayor’s head and put it on the head of an appointed town official. Or, like Downers Grove, prohibit campaign contributions to mayors from anyone connected to the liquor establishments they regulate.
Either reform would solve the problem, and that’s something we would raise a glass to.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.