City eyes changes to liquor laws

Scott Gordon

Last month’s shooting at The Keg of Evanston has stirred city officials to talk about changing the city’s liquor laws, but none of the proposals have strong support yet from the city council.

Police have not said whether Antoine Hill, 19, was drinking when he allegedly killed Robert Gresham, 22, during a June 19 fight at the bar. But since the shooting, one alderman has proposed a new law aimed at preventing underage drinking, another has said the Keg’s license should be revoked, and the mayor has asked liquor license holders to help her revise liquor laws.

“I think the shooting makes (people) more aware of the issue,” said Ald. Dolores Holmes (5th). “I’m just not sure that we should connect one with the other.”

Hill is charged with first-degree murder. He and Gresham had been fighting and arguing over drugs and money before they ran into each other at The Keg, said Deputy Chief Joe Bellino of Evanston Police Department. Police are still investigating whether the two had a gunfight six days before the shooting.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) last week proposed a law forbidding anyone under 21 to be in a liquor-selling bar or restaurant after 11 p.m. But several alderman and the mayor said this law would be hard to enforce and would have to make many exceptions.

“I think there is some sense and logic to it,” said Ald. Edmund Moran (6th), but he added that “you also have to be careful about a blanket proposal.”

Liquor commission member Byron Wilson said, “I think that’s against their civil rights because the Keg … also (has) a restaurant license” which allows it to serve food and non-alcoholic drinks to patrons of all ages.

“(The shooting) has been completely blown out of proportion,” he said. “It could’ve happened anywhere.”

Before Evanston City Council can vote on it, Rainey’s proposal still has to be drafted into a city ordinance, discussed by the city’s Administration and Public Works Committee — which can take weeks or even months, especially if aldermen disagree on what specifically the ordinance should say.

Mayor Lorraine H. Morton has invited the city’s liquor license holders to a public hearing Monday at 10 a.m. at the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave. She said she wants to get business owners’ suggestions for possible changes in the law.

“This is something we should have done long ago,” said Morton, who also heads the city’s Liquor Control Commission.

Morton said last week that the city has issued too many liquor licenses. About 75 Evanston businesses have them, said Patrick Casey, Evanston’s director of management and budget.

‘Nuisance’ reputation

“On the street, the reputation is, if you’re underage and want to get served, you go to the Keg,” said Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th).

A manager at Tommy Nevin’s Pub and Restaurant, 1450 Sherman Ave., called the Keg “the dive bar of Evanston.”

The Keg was cited four times between March and May for serving alcohol to patrons younger than 21. Evanston Police Department has received more than 150 calls about noise and fights at the Keg since January 2004, said EPD Chief Frank Kaminski.

Kaminski deemed the Keg a “nuisance” about a week before the shooting because of the citations. Homes or businesses that receive two or more citations for noise or alcohol violations can become nuisances at the chief’s discretion.

Owners of these properties must show the chief of police a plan for avoiding future citations or risk being fined as much as $750. The city has named 14 nuisance properties, 12 of them apartment buildings rented by Northwestern students. The Keg is the first business to be designated a nuisance.

“I steadily see more and more police calls for that location,” Kaminski said, adding that calls doubled between 2000 and 2005. There have been no calls about the Keg since it reopened two weeks ago, he said.

Bernstein wants the city to permanently revoke the Keg’s liquor license.

“They’re done as far as I’m concerned. They’ve abused the privilege,” Bernstein said.

Morton suspended the Keg’s license for a week following the shooting, but Bernstein said the action isn’t enough. Morton also has the power to revoke liquor licenses.

In February 2003, EPD cited 13 Keg patrons for underage drinking after getting an anonymous phone call. Later that year, the Keg cooperated with an EPD sting that caught 9 people trying to enter the bar with fake identification.

Peter Godwin, a lawyer who has represented the Keg in the past, said the city should enforce liquor laws more severely. “Giving a citation to someone and maybe fining them … doesn’t deter (them),” he said.

Godwin, who ran against Morton for mayor in this year’s city elections, said he still informally advises Keg owner Tom Migon.

RE-opening, ReGrouping

The Keg has promised EPD to cut down on underage drinking, and the bar might remain popular among Northwestern students despite the shooting.

Chris Cohen, 42, of Atlanta, who came to the Keg after dinner Monday night, said the shooting didn’t frighten him.

“Shootings are random,” Cohen said. “They are not related to where you are.”

A doorman at the bar told a 20-year-old trying to enter Monday night that the Keg had had too much trouble with underage patrons and is no longer letting them in.

After the shooting, Migon refurbished the bar’s furniture and flooring to make it “more approachable,” Godwin said.

Kaminski said he and Migon are still talking about improving the Keg’s security equipment.

As patrons enter the Keg, an attendant scans their IDs with a digital camera that records them onto a CD, and another camera photographs their faces. Video cameras that also record onto CDs are mounted throughout the bar. Godwin said all this digital equipment was installed in early June, before the shooting.

Stricter security measures such as metal detectors and pat-downs would drive away customers, Godwin said.

Reach Scott Gordon at [email protected].