Proposal would increase Urbana mayor's power over liquor licenses
URBANA — The owner of the Canopy Club is worried that too much power is being concentrated in one person's hands while Mayor Laurel Prussing says a revision to the city's liquor code would allow officials to prevent problems with crowds and crime in the future.
City council members have asked for more time to review the ordinance, but as proposed, a new section of the city's liquor code would give the mayor the authority to impose restrictions on a business' liquor license "as reasonably necessary to protect the public health, safety, or welfare."
Ian Goldberg, who owns the campus-area bar and special-event venue on Goodwin Avenue, thinks that means free reign for the mayor, who also acts as the city's liquor commissioner.
"It's just somewhat unchecked," Goldberg said. "Putting all of that power in one person creates, obviously, the possibility at any point down the line for abuse and just for misjudgment, to be honest."
The liquor commissioner is responsible for the enforcement of local and state laws governing the sale of alcohol. But as it stands, Prussing says, the mayor cannot prevent problems — only deal with them after the fact.
Standard practice now is for police to work with liquor license holders on a "security plan," but that usually comes after a serious problem has already occurred. And often it relies on the voluntary compliance by the license holder.
"We have to see a problem, work with those people and initially try to get voluntary compliance through an agreement," Police Chief Patrick Connolly said.
He points at a recent arrangement with a new business that plans to move in where a police shut down a troubled convenience store earlier this year.
The owners of now-shuttered Home Run Food Mart pleaded guilty this summer to misdemeanor drug charges after police investigation discovered that customers of the store could buy materials typically used to smoke crack cocaine.
Now a new shop, One Stop Food & Liquor, is on track to receive a license to open at that same location at 1509 E. Washington St. Before it could, however, police asked the owner to agree to certain conditions: "No loitering" signs must be posted; additional lighting and fencing will placed around the store; and no abandoned vehicles, pallets or garbage are allowed in the back of the building, for example.
Though voluntary, Connolly said, the conditions promise to be a successful arrangement, and one that benefits both the license holder and the city.
"It has to be on a case-specific basis," Connolly said.
But it's not until after a serious incident that action is usually taken.
Take the Canopy Club, for example, which can hold as many as 800 people who often exit onto Goodwin Avenue after a concert is over.
Crowds can be a nuisance, or they can escalate into something more serious.
"There was a huge problem in the past with those establishments not giving us any advance notice of those types of events, and then we became reactive instead of proactive," Connolly said.
Police have implemented strategies to prepare for that, Connolly said, but it depends on the voluntary cooperation of the owner.
Still, it sometimes ends with Urbana police needing to call other law enforcement agencies because they do not have enough officers to control a large crowd or a fight, Connolly said.
Prussing said she hopes to prevent those problems with the ordinance revision.
"This is not arbitrary," she told Goldberg during a city council meeting last month. "This is based on the need for public safety, and that is the job of the city."
Goldberg said his problem is not necessarily with the current mayor. But the ordinance would remain in place for anyone who holds the office in the future, and he worries about leaving too much leeway for the liquor commissioner to impose restrictions on a whim.
By attaching conditions or restrictions to liquor licenses, he worries they will target specific businesses. That creates a lot of uncertainty for an owner looking to sign a long-term lease in the city, he said.
"You're basically being told that, at any point during the term of that lease, one person can decide to change the rules that you play by," he said.
He thinks the rule-making should remain in the hands of the police department and the city council, a seven-member board that can vote on ordinances that would be enforced consistently throughout the city.
"I'm not really sure why this is necessary," Goldberg said. "I appreciate the mayor's intent in being proactive in trying to ward off the potential for any problems before they arise, but I don't feel that creating an unfair playing field for businesses is the way to do that."