The new St. Charles Liquor Control Commission on Tuesday balked at the idea of redefining the differences between restaurants and taverns, although the panel will meet next month to consider ways to limit 2 a.m. closing times for establishments that lose that privilege.
Meeting for the first time, the Liquor Control Commission also reviewed the parameters under which it will operate, as well as well as its role as an advisory body to the mayor and the City Council.
At first blush, the commission reached a consensus that the status quo is good in terms of how the city distinguishes between restaurants, restaurant/taverns and taverns. That general agreement was reached at the recommendation of city staff, although the City Council in the past has considered methods to better define the differences between restaurants, establishments that function as both restaurants and taverns, and those that operate strictly as taverns.
However, Mayor Raymond Rogina, who by law also serves as the city’s liquor commissioner, said he wants the commission to consider in future months the criteria it will recommend to the City Council for determining when an establishment’s ability to stay open until 2 a.m. should be cut to midnight.
That agenda appears to set the tone for how the city will proceed in its efforts to rein in some of the problems that have occurred as a result of alcohol sales in the downtown area.
Still, the issue may prove a thorny one.
City Attorney John McGuirk told the panel — Rogina, Alderwomen Rita Anne Payleitner, Ward 2, and Maureen Lewis, Ward 5, as well as commission members Charles A. Amenta II and Robert Gehm — that the closing times are part and parcel of the city’s ordinances defining the various classes of liquor licenses.
Responding to a question from Rogina, McGuirk said he does not believe the city currently has the option of cutting a bar’s hours back from 2 a.m. to midnight as a punitive measure.
That likely means some amendments to the liquor code would be needed to achieve what Rogina envisions: That the 2 a.m. closing time would be subject to annual review, with those establishments that stay out of trouble — meaning liquor code violations — would be able to maintain. Establishments that fail to keep a clean record during the course of a year could be forced into a midnight closing time in the following year.
As he has stated publicly on other occasions, Rogina told the commission he would like it to recommend a set of criteria to the City Council that could be used on an annual basis to determine when an establishment should have its closing time changed to midnight.
The idea is to rein in problems such as public fights, public urination and public intoxication that some blame on patrons being over-served alcohol at local bars.
But, Rogina acknowledged, the approach will have to avoid the risk of double jeopardy in which an establishment is punished twice for the same infraction — for example, being fined and have its license suspended for an infraction, and then, at the end of the year, losing an extra two hours of business per day as a result.
That’s a discussion the commission will take up again when it meets in September.
Defining Types of Establishments
Members of the commission were reluctant to consider changes to the way the city distinguishes between:
A restaurant, which now can stay open until midnight;
A restaurant/tavern, which can remain open until 2 a.m. as long as its kitchen serves food until 11 p.m.;
And taverns that may remain open until 2 a.m.
Past discussions among members of the City Council have included making the chief distinction fall along the lines of liquor sales vs. food receipts — in other words, a restaurant would have to have at least 50 percent of its revenues come from food sales rather than the sale of alcoholic beverages.
City Administrator Brian Townsend said the city staff is recommended no change, although he presented the commission with two other options.
One would be to establish a rule that would require restaurant establishments to keep their kitchens open as long as they are serving alcohol. But both Townsend and Police Chief Jim Lamkin said that would prove costly to restaurant owners. Lamkin noted that the St. Charles Tavern Association lobbied strongly against a similar provision considered previously by the City Council. The association said the requirement would cost restaurants tens of thousands of dollars a year to comply — largely by keeping kitchen staffs working later, when less food is being purchased.
The final option Townsend outlined was setting a “hard standard,” based on a percentage of gross receipts as mentioned earlier. That would require the city to examine those receipts periodically to ensure restaurants indeed did meet that standards.
Ultimately, however, commission members agreed the status quo is the way to go.
Roles and Responsibilities
The final area the commission reviewed actually came at the start of the meeting. Rogina and McGuirk, along with Chief Lamkin, ran through what the commission can expect as it moves forward.
The panel’s primary responsibilities will be reviewing applications for new licenses, as well as making recommendations for disciplinary action — which may include rare full-blown disciplinary hearings — and making recommendations to the City Council about potential ordinance changes.
Lamkin said the city has had perhaps one full, formal disciplinary hearing in the past eight years, explaining most liquor commission actions fall into the category of plea proceedings — or what McGuirk referred to as mitigation hearings. In those instances, the establishment comes in acknowledging it erred and trying to work out the appropriate fine and, sometimes, a suspension. The establishment also is required to pay the city’s costs associated with the disciplinary action.
Typically, Lamkin said, the police department notices a problem, and then he forwards a report on the incident to the mayor and council. The mayor then decides, in his role as liquor commissioner, whether to initiate disciplinary proceedings.
Lamkin said those generally result in a fine, possibly a liquor license suspension of no more than three days, and an assignment of fees the establishment must pay to reimburse the city for its costs of prosecuting the violation.
McGuirk said Downers Grove and Wheaton operate similarly to St. Charles in that regard, except that when a violation notice is issued, a plea form also is sent to the license holder giving the licensee the right to plead guilty or not guilty. Guilty pleas allow them to come in and put make their case, during a mitigation hearing, for a lesser penalty than otherwise might be considered.
A not guilty plea triggers a full-blown hearing, which is far more costly.
In Wheaton, he said, the commission hears the case, then goes into executive session to deliberate before coming out and making a recommendation to the liquor commissioner.
Rogina said he favors that approach.