Candidates spar over liquor issue

By Michael Berg

The closing of Otto’s bar and the subsequent public hearing scheduled for Monday has stirred an issue that divides both DeKalb mayoral candidates: the idea of a five-member liquor commission instead of the current system.

Under the current system, the mayor serves alone as liquor commissioner. DeKalb Mayor Greg Sparrow, who has held the position for 12 years, supports the system.

However, 2nd Ward Alderman Michael Welsh, who is running against Sparrow in the mayoral race, has proposed a five-member liquor commission to avoid conflict. At a recent mayoral debate, Welsh said there have been no violation hearings recently, and he believes this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Sparrow disagreed and defended his performance in the position. “In my 12 years as mayor, there have been six or seven liquor hearings,” Sparrow said. “I’ve probably had more than anyone has as mayor.”

Welsh, however, said the system needs a change. “The current system is a system where one individual in the community decides what the standards are for the entire community,” he said. “For a big issue and a large industry like this, I would much prefer that a commission deal with that.”

Welsh said the proposal for a five-person liquor commission will be dealt with at the city council meeting Monday. “The ordinance is patterned after one in Wheaton,” he said.

Welsh also said there was a conflict of interest concerning Sparrow and his position as liquor commissioner. “The mayor accepted $4,500 over the last two years in contributions to his campaign from liquor dealers,” Welsh said.

At a recent mayoral debate, Sparrow said he did receive contributions from the liquor establishment, but this didn’t lead necessarily to a conflict of interest.

Also, a mail-in fine system passed recently by the city council allows minors caught in a bar to send in a fine and not appear before a judge if it is their first offense.

Welsh has said he opposes this system. “It’s a back-door system to let minors in bars,” he said at a recent debate.

Sparrow said the city is tougher than most in Illinois on keeping minors out of bars. “I don’t know where my opponent gets off saying we’re real lax in letting minors in bars,” Sparrow said. “Most other (college towns) let 18, 19 and 20-year-olds in bars. Look at the number of sweeps in bars we have to check IDs.”

Sparrow said judges don’t scare minors as much as Welsh thinks they do. “Students could give a (darn) about going before a judge,” he said.

Sparrow said the fine is a major deterrent because $150 is a lot of money for a college student to pay, he said.

The city is tough on underage drinking, Sparrow said. “We’re probably the toughest in the state,” he said. “Saying we’re not tough enough is ridiculous.”

However, Welsh said he was concerned with both city and student misuse of the system. “Justice is what I’m looking for,” Welsh said. “There’s no justice if there’s no judge, mainly because the system could very easily be abused by the city and students.”

Welsh said the mail-in system could be used as a “party tax” to raise revenue for the city. “If the current mayor decided the budget was $50,000 short this weekend, he could make it up by ticketing 500 individuals for drinking,” he said.

“If we’re going to have a fine for something we’d like people not to do, I’d like to see that fund be at zero dollars at the end of the year, rather than make it a budget item,” Welsh said. Although there is not a quota system attached to the ordinance now, there could be one if the judge is removed from the process, he said.

“The police chief admitted that the people caught are only about 3 percent of the people actually breaking (city ordinance),” Welsh said. If the police went out to get 10 percent, they could raise that much extra revenue, he said.

Also, people ticketed might pay when they shouldn’t. “Perhaps going before a judge, the judge may find the officer had no business arresting the person,” he said. “If that’s the case, the student or whoever should not have to pay.

“When you take the judge out of the justice system, you leave it up to the discretion of the officer or person ticketed to make the final decision,” he said.