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In Bars & Clubs Commentary

This license business is just full of hypocrisy, temptation and anti-business development rigor.

Common Council should get out of liquor license business


There are a lot of rules and regulations in the City of Milwaukee that I think are stupid, confusing or useless.

Parking checkers handing out tickets like Christmas candy making lots of people wary of going and parking Downtown. Those parking meters with the numbered spaces so you may have to walk an entire block in the wrong direction to pay for the privilege of parking Downtown. The fact that strippers in the city have to wear Band-Aids over their nipples.

But for laws that not only make little sense but also are a green light for corruption attempts, nothing beats the way the city hands out liquor licenses.

After you cut through all the gobbledygook and bureaucratic language what it comes down to is that the alderman in whose district the licensed establishment will be located has total power over whether the license is granted or not. If your alderman is opposed, you might as well find another way to make a living. Selling liquor or operating a bar is out.

Let's first deal with the question of why we have to hand out liquor licenses at all.

I can understand a driver's license. I guess I can even understand fishing and hunting licenses. I can understand a license to run a daycare center.

But a license to sell a perfectly legal product that isn't going to hurt anyone? Come on here.

Sure, there are people who abuse alcohol, but denying some enterprising businessman a license to sell alcohol won't do anything to stop that. Sure, there are bars and taverns that cause problems in neighborhoods, but that can easily be handled by letting everyone know that the city can shut them down if it's too bad.

So what if an aldermanic district has too many bars? Market forces will weed out the ones that should go out of business. We don't need to control that growth with license largess.

We are supposed to have an entrepreneurial country here. We are supposed to make it easier for people to start and grow businesses. Everyone wants to get rid of stupid regulations that make it tougher on small business operators.

Now, the second part of the problem. The invitation to corrupt.

I'm not naming names here, but I have known aldermen who have had their hands out for a little extra in order to grease approval of liquor licenses. Sometimes they get caught, sometimes they don't.

But giving what's called "aldermanic privilege" in the granting of liquor licenses automatically makes the aldermen a target of people who have have slightly shady ethics. There are lawyers, for example, who have built careers by claiming to have special influence over certain aldermen.

Just go take a look sometime at the campaign contribution reports of some aldermen and figure out how many of the contributors are holders of licenses in the district. If you don't contribute, sometimes you may have problems.

That, of course is perfectly legal, even if it smells a little like extortion.

But the recent revelation by former Ald. James Witkowiak, that he got an envelope with $2,500 in cash inside from someone who wanted a license, just goes to illustrate the point in a couple of ways. Witkowiak, by the way, notified the FBI immediately.

One is that it happened. It's not the first time and it won't be the last.

The other is how absolutely outraged some other aldermen were when they learned of the attempted bribe. Oh, my Lord, how could this have happened, they seemed to say.

This license business is just full of hypocrisy, temptation and anti-business development rigor. We'd be a lot better off letting people get about their business. If it proves to be a problem, then take action. But preventing the operations without any good reason just seems like a business the Common Council should get out of.

Talkbacks

ChateauDweller | Jan. 26, 2013 at 12:30 p.m. (report)

The Common Council has the license process because it is mandated by state law, which gives a licensed owner a protected property right. That makes it difficult to take away the license and why a license "free for all" may be a bad idea. Problem bars are difficult to shut down. Perhaps a solution would be for the state to create a temporary license that expires after a year and cannot be renewed. This way the Council could be more lenient with its approvals knowing that the licensee would have to apply again for a permanent license.

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mygreendoor | Jan. 25, 2013 at 1:14 p.m. (report)

Dave I'd love to know what Utopia you live in. I'm on a southside street with a bar on every corner. I'm three blocks away from a busy main street with at least seven taverns and 2 convenience stores selling liquor. I am eternally grateful that I can go to my Alderman who can use the fact that he influences the licensing process to put pressure on these bar owners to shape up or risk losing their license. Yes, the process does invite the temptation to be unethical....but not every Alderman operates that way. My Alderman has been nothing but responsive when I've complained about problem bars and has helped shut down a few really bad ones. And yes, I've seen the fundraising reports of more than one Alderman. Have you? My guy (Donovan) gets an average of $25-50 from the bar owners in his district. You seriously think that's enough to influence his vote? Lastly, one Alderman does not have the final say. License applications go before a Committee and then before the full Council. There are numerous examples of times when the Committee or full Council did the opposite of what one Alderman asked for. Get your facts!

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emills81 | Jan. 25, 2013 at 12:19 p.m. (report)

Dave, Strippers do not have to wear band aids over their nipples. Maybe after you're done with them they do, but not by law. Just to make sure though, I will go out and do a closer inspection this evening. No need to thank me.

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brewcitypaul | Jan. 25, 2013 at 11:24 a.m. (report)

Alcohol never hurt anyone? Ummmmm......did you read what you typed before you hit submit?

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AndrewJ | Jan. 25, 2013 at 10:57 a.m. (report)

Gotcha. So, licensing and Aldermanic privilege = bad, but taxation as means of regulation = good. Wait... what?

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