Slow start for liquor code revisions

Scott Gordon

Few new ideas emerged this week as Mayor Lorraine H. Morton asked restaurant owners to help her revise Evanston’s liquor code.

There’s nothing new in the bar or liquor industries that warrants a major change in liquor law, said Bill Gilmore, owner of Bill’s Blues, 1029 Davis St. The main problem is an old one — bar owners are under pressure to avoid serving alcohol to minors, especially in college towns, he said, recalling his own days as an underage drinker.

“By whatever means necessary, I got served,” he said.

Morton hoped to get suggestions and complaints from some of the city’s 85 liquor license holders at a public meeting of the Liquor Control Commission on Monday morning, but only 15 people showed up, not counting city staff, and only four spoke. Morton heads the commission, which has three other members.

The commission will have a meeting for residents to discuss the liquor code Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.

Bar owners said business would be hurt if the city passed a law forbidding anyone under 21 to be in a liquor-serving restaurant after 11 p.m. Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) suggested the law two weeks ago.

“From our standpoint, we think it’s ridiculous. Absolutely, utterly absurd,” said Paul White, owner of Prairie Moon, 1502 Sherman Ave.

White said minors should be allowed to learn how to act in bars and restaurants, even if they can’t drink. “If we tell these kids, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ and then tell them they’re adults, we’re sending them a mixed message,” he said.

He added the law would make it hard for restaurants to host all-age family parties at night.

Morton and Pat Casey, Evanston’s director of management and budget, both said Monday that the city’s liquor code needs to be updated and “modernized,” but did not say specifically what that meant, beyond simplifying the city’s system of liquor licensing. City law currently provides for 24 different kinds of liquor licenses, each with different fees, restrictions and privileges.

Morton also could not say for sure how much change is needed. She said it “may be true” that there is little need, but she also said that the city has to “go through every little line” of the liquor code.

Gilmore, White and Evanston lawyer Peter Godwin, who has represented restaurants and bars including The Keg of Evanston, 810 Grove St., all said the city and police department should punish underage drinkers more severely because it is increasingly harder for bars to spot fake IDs and keep out minors.

Prairie Moon, the Keg and Bill’s Blues have all been cited in recent years for serving underage drinkers, and customers at all three bars have been cited for underage drinking and using fake IDs.

“The people who (make fake IDs) for a living get very good at it,” Gilmore said.

Commission member Byron Wilson, who has sold liquor for decades at stores and bars, sympathized. “These kids know how to circumvent the law — period. And you got to be on eternal vigilance,” Wilson said.

Morton suggested that bars protect themselves by stamping patrons’ hands or asking them to sign affidavits swearing they are 21 or older. But White said that “is hardly hospitable…it’s adversarial.”

“I think that fines for parents are not out of line,” he added.

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