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By Anna Lothson
One campaign hurdle for Oak Park's President-Elect Anan Abu-Taleb is about to be eliminated with the backing of State Senator Don Harmon, but locally, the issue isn't off the table.
In early March the question of if Anan Abu-Taleb, the village's president-elect, could be village president and also hold ownership of Maya del Sol came into play. Under state and local law, a restaurant owner of an establishment with a liquor license would be prohibited due to a conflict of interest. A local ordinance designates the village president as the official liquor commissioner of the village and state law extends that to communities of 50,000 or less.
The topic has been tossed around between current village trustees and no final solution has been determined locally, but in Springfield, Harmon, who represents Oak Park, got new legislation through the State Senate that would bump the population threshold up to 55,000. At the state level, this would make Oak Park and five additional communities exempt from the law.
The measure, Senate Bill 724, passed the Illinois Senate 47-3 on April 18 and is expected to be taken up by the House when it returns to the Capitol in two weeks.
"One of the things we're elected to do as state legislators is address pressing issues in our home communities. In this case, we had someone supported by 60 percent of Oak Park voters who was technically prevented from serving as president while owning a restaurant," Harmon wrote in a news release sent out Monday. "With the approaching May 6 swearing-in of the new village board, I saw this as important, urgent, needed action."
In a follow-up interview, Harmon said he doesn't want to see the will of the people ignored, and since Oak Parker's backed Abu-Taleb, there shouldn't be an old law prohibiting that. The law was amended last year to allow towns of 50,000 or less to be exempt, which left 33 communities in Illinois under the law.
The laws stems from a 1934 Liquor Control Act, which Harmon said could be tied to the Prohibition-era, and established that suburban mayors or village presidents would also serve as local liquor control commissioner, but to avoid conflicts of interest, could not hold liquor licenses in the communities that elected them.
Harmon said it's sensible to update the law because it isn't fair to ban a person like Abu-Taleb, who was heavily supported in his community, simply because he owns a restaurant with a liquor license. The senator didn't contact Abu-Taleb until after the April 9 election and the issue came up when he called to congratulate him, Harmon said.
The new law, if adopted, allows Abu-Taleb to keep his liquor license for Maya del Sol restaurant, but it would also need the direction of the village board to appoint a replacement liquor commissioner.
Harmon's amendment to the Liquor Control Act was attached to a "vehicle bill" which was introduced in January. Such vehicles often are introduced at the beginning of the session and moved through the legislative process so they are in place to address issues that may arise in certain laws or sections of Illinois law.
Harmon also said that during the April 18 debate on the senate floor, questions were raised about whether the overall law was even needed at all, and some suggested that the General Assembly strike it from the statutes during its 2014 session.
"Restaurateurs are often popular people in their communities and perhaps should not have to decide between their businesses and their elected offices," Harmon wrote. "Many business owners in other lines of work run for local office."
For Oak Park, however, it's a matter of addressing its ethics ordinance, which references potential conflicts of interest for elected officials.
No formal meeting has been held at the village board level about how to resolve the local implications of the matter. Village Trustee Bob Tucker said he hasn't seen any proposals, but anticipates something being brought to the board soon. There may be a possibility the board appoints another trustee to be the liquor commissioner.
During the campaign, there was the suggestion that Abu-Taleb must give up ownership to be in compliance with the ethics ordinance or that the liquor license role needs to be updated to bring him into compliance. Before the election, Abu-Taleb said he would divest himself of ownership in Maya if necessary though he was never specific in how that might be accomplished.
Abu-Taleb said Harmon's handling the issue in Springfield could help fix the local matter.
"At some base level that (population change) seems like it was an arbitrary number in the first place. But in the narrow case of Oak Park, Senator Harmon is removing a hurdle to Anan serving as village president," Tucker said. "If Anan is not going to divest himself of ownership in Maya, then we are going to have to examine this locally. We're going to have to look at something in a way that exempts him."
In addition to being village president, Oak Park's liquor commissioner is a non-voting member of the village's Liquor Control Review Board. Since village presidents have not typically attended the meetings of the liquor board, a chairperson is appointed by the liquor commissioner with the ratification of the village board. The role of the liquor control review board is to investigate and review all applications and renewals of liquor licenses.
The paperwork for the licenses is processed through the village clerk's office and the review board acts merely as a body to recommend whether a license should be approved or not. The group has no final say about licenses, as that's up to the village board. The liquor board meets roughly once a month, but being the village's liquor commissioner doesn't mean attending the meeting is necessary
Mas Takiguchi, a member of the liquor control review board, who served as one of Abu-Taleb's legal counsels during the campaign, said Village President David Pope didn't attend meetings and was more of a figurehead for the group. His only role, said Takiguchi, was providing signatures on official documents.
Abu-Taleb said during the campaign he'd look at divesting himself of ownership in the restaurant, but with the backing of Harmon and a majority of Oak Parkers, he said he's hoping the board will agree to appoint a new liquor commissioner.
The restaurateur and newly elected president said he's proud of Harmon's leadership on this issue, saying that the senator is helping aid the voice of the people. Abu-Taleb also wants the concern to be eliminated for other business owners who may want to run for elected office.
"He felt the community spoke and spoke clearly," Abu-Taleb said. "It's fulfilling the voice of the community. That's really my take."
He said he's hopeful the new board will appoint a new liquor commissioner so the ethics issue is addressed. He's hoping as the elected choice to be village president, he won't have to give up his livelihood to serve as president.
"If that conflict of interest is removed it is a win-win for everybody," Abu-Taleb said.
"The campaign is over. People have spoken and spoken loudly. I'm sure what we do will be what's best for the community and I'm sure they will make a conclusion."
Still, Abu-Taleb knows it's up to his six colleagues on the board.
"It's a decision they have to make. Ideally, what I would like, after I'm sworn in, I want to focus on issues that matter to our community and not be bogged down in something that won't benefit anyone."
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