Suburban mayors typically wear two hats at the same time, thanks to the quirks of state law: Head of their municipal government; and local liquor commissioner, which means licensing, regulating and punishing businesses that sell booze.
And since this is Illinois, it’s no surprise many of these mayors also tap their local liquor establishments for campaign cash.
It’s perfectly legal but sleazy, a blatant conflict of interest: Taking money from places you regulate.
Unfortunately, some mayors don’t get it. They wonder why the Better Government Association is concerned.
So let’s look at southwest suburban Bolingbrook for an answer, courtesy of interviews, police reports and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act:
In December of 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, but served alcohol anyway, including a concoction called a “Blue Mother F—–” 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 raped her.
The man 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 of 2012, where Tailgaters admits serving the underage drinkers and agrees to pay a $1,500 fine.
The official approving the settlement: Mayor Roger Claar, who is also 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 violation that may have led to a sexual assault, he takes a $1,000 donation from the same bar.
Claar insists there was no quid pro quo and no connection between the liquor violation case and the donation. The bar, he adds, 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 us with a list of earlier penalties.
But even if he brought the hammer down hard on the bar, and campaign cash didn’t buy leniency, his acceptance of contributions from Tailgaters 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 money from those they’re regulating, whether it’s contractors, municipal employees or liquor license holders. That’s Ethics 101.
Officials in west suburban 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 lawmakers 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 elected mayor’s head and put it on the head of an appointed village 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’d raise a glass to.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.