By Anna Lothson
Watch a recap of our liveblog coverage here.
It happened — but not without a lengthy discussion of legal jargon, opinions from vocal residents, and a taste of local politics. During a special Oak Park village board meeting Monday, President Anan Abu-Taleb got the votes he needed to move forward as the village's leader.
The board voted 6-1 in favor of amending the village liquor code so that Abu-Taleb, owner of Maya del Sol restaurant, is no longer in conflict with local ordinance. Due to a newly updated state law, the village board was tasked with voting on an ordinance that would bring Oak Park's code in synch with the change approved by the Illinois Legislature.
Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill Sunday that exempts towns with populations less than 55,000 from certain liquor law regulations. Under previous legislation, village presidents in towns of less than 50,000 were exempt from having the village president or mayor serve as the local liquor commissioner. The updated law now extends that to Oak Park.
The issue was tabled at the last board meeting to await the state senate's action and the governor's signature. Quinn signed over the weekend, giving most Oak Park trustees the answer they needed to vote yes for the local ordinance change.
The updated ordinance also provides for delegation of liquor commissioner duties to an attorney with an active license to practice law in the state of Illinois. This was taken up in the second session of the evening when it was determined that Trustee Adam Salzman, a local attorney, would serve as the local liquor commissioner for the remainder of his current term.
Public comment at Monday's meeting consisted of seven Oak Park residents who all spoke in strong support of Abu-Taleb and asked the board to give the new president the ability to govern without unnecessary restriction.
"This man has raised his children in the Oak Park schools system; he's built a successful family-run business here. [No one] has more skin in the game to have the village of Oak Park's interest than this man, Anan," said resident Jim Solnes.
Other residents urged the board to be "expeditious" in its decision, with one resident saying any deferral would be petty and wouldn't amount to substantial change. Resident John Guerin said the board shouldn't put Abu-Taleb in a position where he's trying to lead the village, while "six trustees hold his livelihood in the balance."
Each resident who spoke was greeted with a loud round of applause from the enthusiastic crowd in the packed village hall.
"When I first came to Oak Park, there were a lot of silly laws," said resident Gary Cole, a former village trustee. "Most of those laws have been done away with. There are still some archaic laws on the books that need to be somehow eliminated. … I see no conflict here."
Salzman was the first board member to speak on the matter. His comments focused on logistical questions for acting Village Attorney Simone Boutet. Her legal perspective gave Salzman all he needed to move forward with his vote of support, saying his concerns centered on board cohesiveness, maintaining productive relationships among the board, and staying in compliance with village and state law.
"In my view, any potential outcome that could threaten that civility and our ability to deal with each other in a forthright and trustworthy manner is not acceptable to me. I think we have to be extra vigilant in preventing that kind of outcome," Salzman said. "I believe [the updates] truly avoid any foreseeable conflicts of interest. That's the most important thing to me and that's why I'm comfortable voting for this ordinance."
Trustee Ray Johnson, who also voted in favor of the change, proposed a compromise. He agreed to say yes if the board ran the proposed changes through a citizen advisory commission. Johnson said his decision wasn't based on Abu-Taleb's recent election but because it was the best thing to do for Oak Park.
"We don't make policy changes based on popularity. Policy changes are made because it's the right thing to do. Politics have come into play in this issue to a great extent. I'm not used to that," Johnson said. "I'm putting aside all of these issues to move forward. We move forward but at the same time our citizen commissions are able to do their work … Our citizen commission is part of the process, and I do not want to short-circuit that."
Trustee Colette Lueck, who cast the single dissenting vote, also spoke about the politics of the issue and how it has affected her view. She said she was contacted by a fellow board member and asked for support on this issue, an action she hopes won't happen again.
"Our meetings were conducted at the table, transparent and open — until last month, and that's changed," Lueck said. "The discussion needs to be about the policy, not whose side you're on."
Her concerns weren't about Abu-Taleb owning a restaurant with a liquor license and being the liquor commissioner, she said. Rather, her issue was about the fact that Abu-Taleb didn't come to the board prior to filing for the election to discuss the potential conflict.
"My concern is the process by which this has come before us," she emphasized. It would have been "more respectful and honorable," she said, to come before the board and requested a possible change. "With that request, the board would have had time to do the work we always do, which is the work of the people. …This board did not create this divisive issue."
Lueck said voting for an ordinance that specifically benefits an elected colleague of hers seems like an abuse of her power as a trustee. She said policies are changed to benefit people and not one particular person on the board. Therefore she said she could not support the ordinance.
Outgoing President David Pope offered the final perspective and said if the board did not act tonight, the issue would be dragged through multiple meetings and eventually come back with the same proposal. Because state law requires Oak Park to now make a change in its liquor laws, Pope said the board had no choice but to move ahead.
He spoke about less-than-ideal alternative scenarios if the board couldn't reach a conclusion. This included asking Abu-Taleb to divest his ownership of Maya del Sol or resign as village president.
"If we kick off a process without a certain outcome that ends up being the focus and attention of our community in the course of the next several months, we will have cost our community," Pope said. "It will be represented as there is a split, there is fractionalization, and that a portion of the board is at war with the newly elected village president. I don't think that's healthy. … We're better off moving forward, helping to create certainty."
Although it wasn't unanimous, the board's vote matched what the vocal residents wanted. Following the announcement of the 6-1 vote, the crowd erupted in applause and Abu-Taleb was greeted with handshakes and hugs.
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