By Anna Lothson
Portions of the Oak Park Ethics Ordinance have raised questions for local restaurateur Anan Abu-Taleb in his run for village president.
The longtime Oak Parker — who along with his wife owns Maya del Sol restaurant, managed by his son — is making his first bid for elected office in his run for the village's top elected office. But a recent challenge from his opponent in the race, current Village Trustee John Hedges, about a possible conflict of interest has created some buzz.
In Oak Park, the village president also acts as the local liquor license commissioner, one member of a group that consists of five appointed residents and the village clerk. The president doesn't have voting power on the liquor board, and a chairperson is subsequently appointed by the president/commissioner, with the approval of the village board.
Hedges has suggested owning a restaurant with a liquor license and serving as the local liquor commissioner appears to pose a conflict, as specified by Oak Park's ethics ordinance. He didn't comment specifically on Abu-Taleb's ability to serve in both roles, but he said he'd like the issue cleared up.
"I think the ordinance speaks for itself," Hedges said. "I just think we need to know the answers."
Former Oak Park village attorney Ray Heise, who voiced his opinion in a letter to the editor, believes that, under state and local laws, Abu-Taleb can't hold a liquor license and be village president. Maya del Sol's liquor license technically is held by his wife, Margaret Abu-Taleb, but Heise said local regulations address that too.
"Under Oak Park law, which I think is a very well thought out and good ethics ordinance, that ordinance extends the prohibition to the president's spouse as well as the president," the retired village government attorney said. If Abu-Taleb is elected, Heise said it would immediately put the new president in conflict with the ordinance. The only way to avoid it, he said, would have to be a "very specific action in place to address that beforehand."
"The election is less than a month away and that's a critical issue for the village," Heise said. The only way he believes it is possible for Abu-Taleb to remain a viable candidate is if he and his wife divest themselves of any interest in Maya del Sol and its liquor license.
The alternative? "Vacate the position of village president should he be elected," Heise noted. "It's pretty simple and pretty understandable. It's not unreasonable to prohibit. It's an issue of public trust. I think he needs to address it."
Liquor board logistics
The role of the Liquor Control Review Board is to investigate and review all applications and renewals of liquor licenses. The paperwork for the licensees is processed through the Village Clerk's Office, and the volunteer liquor board acts as a body to recommend whether a license should be approved or not. The group has no final say about licenses, as that is up to the full village council.
The liquor board meets roughly once a month, but attending the meetings isn't technically necessary for the president/liquor control commissioner. The liquor commission asks basic questions and reviews paperwork to ensure the applicant complies with rules and regulations, according to Mas Takiguchi, a member of the liquor board, who is also serving as one of Abu-Taleb's legal counsels for his campaign.
In fact, Takiguchi said current Village President David Pope rarely attends meetings, though he said that is not a reflection of his commitment. He believes the president doesn't serve a vital role on the liquor board but rather acts as a silent leader.
"He's more a figurehead of authority, with absolutely no power. He does not enforce liquor licenses," he said. In Oak Park, he added, there is no enforcement authority for specific violations; it's more of a reporting role.
"You can't help your friends," Takiguchi added. "It's more of a signature on official documents."
Still, Abu-Taleb's legal counsel said, if the restaurant owner is elected, there may be questions about he and his wife divesting ownership. This is something Abu-Taleb has said he'd review if necessary.
Regardless of the potential conflict, the longtime businessman said he thinks this issue is diverting attention away from matters of real importance. He feels the ordinance is an outdated "prohibition type of thing" that doesn't relate to matters facing Oak Park today.
"There is no conflict for me running for office," Abu-Taleb said strongly. "At the end of the day, I will have to reach out and make decisions. If I have to divest myself from the business, I will do so. … If I'm going to be president I have to respect the ordinance and the law."
He called this matter a "non-issue" for him and said he wants to move on and show Oak Park he's got the energy and passion to make a change. He thinks ordinance details like this are what keep Oak Park stuck in the past.
"Let's focus on big issues," he said.
Takiguchi said that as a member of the liquor board, he doesn't see Abu-Taleb's position as potential village president and local liquor commissioner being in conflict. He said no one on the liquor board has the power to vote in personal interests.
"If elected, he'd comply with every ethics code that is out there," Takiguchi said. He said Abu-Taleb has the ability to be both village president and a restaurant/bar owner. "It's a prohibition law. It's not totally prohibitive."
Where the code comes into play
Multiple sections of Oak Park's code, specifically areas that address potential conflicts of interest, highlight what roles might jeopardize an elected official's judgment. Having an interest in a licensing decision is explicitly stated in the code. Having the power to perform an "official act or action" related to licensing decisions is also prohibited for elected employees.
While the village president has no voting power on the liquor control board, the president does have some authority when it comes to keeping the board of trustees informed about the commission's activities, according to village code.
This includes actions like voicing an opinion about whether a license should be granted, rejected or revoked; authorizing law enforcement to enter a premise at any time to address violations and examine premises; receive complaints from any citizen about violations. Paperwork and fees, however, are dealt with through the clerk's office, and any official vote still needs to be approved by the village board.
While Heise sees this as an issue, Takiguchi argued that the policies aren't black and white. For example, Takiguchi said there are boards in the village, such as zoning and housing that have property managers as members. The power to vote on issues that any commissioner has a direct interest in would pose a conflict, he said but reiterated that, if elected, Abu-Taleb wouldn't have that voting power. Besides informing the clerk's office or police about violations, code enforcement is out of the president's hand, he added.
Heise, however, has a different view of the role of the liquor control commissioner, which he details in his letter to Wednesday Journal.
"If Mr. Abu-Taleb is elected president of the village, he would automatically become the local liquor control commissioner and, therefore, the primary enforcement official for state and village liquor laws. As such, state and village laws would prohibit him from holding a liquor license in the village," Heise wrote.
His letter goes on to explain where he thinks the local problems could arise.
"The village's ethics ordinance would prohibit him from having a financial or personal interest in a business which is incompatible with the proper discharge of his official duties in the public interest or which may tend to impair his independence of judgment or action in the performance of his official duties."
In the end, Heise said he wants a better explanation of how Abu-Taleb will avoid what he calls a clear conflict. Abu-Taleb's counsel, however, doesn't believe his candidate's position as a business owner and liquor license commission gives him any power to abuse the system — which leaves one question on the table:
What does the future ownership of Maya del Sol look like if Abu-Taleb is elected?
OP village code: Liquor license control commissioner
Below are relevant sections of Oak Park's Village Code (chapter 3) as it relates to the role of the liquor control commissioner and elected offices:
"The President of the Board of Trustees, with the consent of the Village Board of Trustees, shall appoint a Liquor Control Review Board of five Oak Park residents to investigate and review all applications, renewals and complaints; to investigate the operation of all licensed establishments, conduct hearings, receive evidence and sworn testimony and make recommendations to the Commissioner.
Members of the Board shall serve, without compensation, for a term of three years. The President of the Board of Trustees shall appoint a chairperson, with the consent of the Board of Trustees, from among the members of the Liquor Control Review Board to serve as chairperson for a term of one year. The President of the Board of Trustees, as Local Liquor Control Commissioner, shall also serve as a nonvoting ex officio member of the Liquor Control Review Board."
"No such liquor license shall be issued to… any elected public official, Oak Park Village employee, or member of the Oak Park Liquor Control Review Board, and no such official shall be interested in any way, either directly or indirectly in any business holding an Oak Park liquor license. Indirect interests shall include, but not be limited to, any business relationship or contractual relationship of any elected public official, Oak Park Village employee or member of the Oak Park Liquor Control Review Board with any Oak Park liquor license holder."
Powers, functions and duties
The Commissioner shall notify the Board of Trustees of the Commissioner's activities and shall have the following powers, functions and duties with respect to licenses:
- To grant and, subject to article 7 of this chapter, to suspend for not more than thirty (30) days, revoke for cause or to deny renewal of, all local liquor licenses issued to persons for premises within the Commissioner's jurisdiction.
- To enter or to authorize any law enforcing officer to enter at any time upon any premises licensed hereunder to determine whether any of the provisions of this chapter or any rules or regulations adopted by the Commissioner and Liquor Control Review Board or by the State Liquor Commission have been or are being violated, and at such time to examine said premises of said licensee in connection therewith.
- To receive complaints from any citizen within the Commissioner's jurisdiction that any of the provisions of this chapter, or any rules or regulations adopted pursuant thereto, have been or are being violated and to act upon such complaints in the manner hereinafter provided.
- To receive local liquor license fees and pay the same forthwith to the Village Collector.
- In the event that an application is rejected by the Commissioner, the Board of Trustees may overrule the Commissioner if a motion to do so is made within forty five days of the rejection. If the Commissioner is overruled and the Board of Trustees, by ordinance, has created a liquor license of the class applied for, the Commissioner shall issue such liquor license to the applicant.