Justin Bielinski
Press Release

Bob Donovan’s Tavern Problem

Statement on Bob Donovan and Liquor Licensing in Milwaukee

By - Jan 18th, 2016 11:37 am
A Donovan for Mayor sign hangs in the window of McKiernan's Pub. Photo by Michael Horne.

A Donovan for Mayor sign hangs in the window of McKiernan’s Pub. Photo by Michael Horne.

The corner tavern. It’s as much a part of Americana as apple pie and John Wayne. Hard-working folks finish their shift at work and head over to the tap room down the street for a few cold ones, a smoke, and friendly conversation with familiar faces. Think Cheers, but with a distinct Wisconsin accent. Drive down any street in the 8th district long enough and you’re sure to come upon one of these establishments. Some may look warm and inviting, others like the kind of place your mother told you to avoid when you were growing up. Whichever one you drive past, you’re almost certain to notice that they have one thing in common: “Bob Donovan for Mayor” taped to the window.

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because an alderman has significant say over whether or not an establishment’s liquor license, and thus its viability as a business, is renewed.

It’s a problem because there are 45 Class B Tavern licenses and an additional 38 retail liquor licenses in the four square mile area that makes up the 8th district.1

It’s a problem because that four square mile area has 167% of the population density of the city at large and a full one-third of its residents are under the age of 18.2

It’s a problem when high-poverty neighborhoods, which unfortunately make up much of the 8th District, have such ubiquitous access to alcohol.

It’s a problem that children often can’t cross the street from their school without passing a tavern or retail store that sells beer and cigarettes.

It’s a problem when there are nuisance bars that stay open despite fights, poor lighting, parking congestion, vandalism, noise complaints, public urination, and accusations of drug dealing and other illegal activity nearby.
It’s a problem that the alderman whose name is in the window of so many licensed premises has accepted over $4,200 from owners of such establishments during the 2012 election cycle, and at least $3,500 in the last six months. 3

It’s a problem that an elected official spends so much time in bars that they’ve become affectionately known as his district office.

It’s a problem that the man who has made public safety his signature issue has had such a terrible record on a safety issue as important as this.

I’m no teetotaler. I enjoy a good adult beverage as much as the next person. I like to patronize local restaurants and night spots to meet up with friends from time to time, and I appreciate the contributions that the brewery and hospitality industries make to our great city and indeed our state. I’m not accusing my opponent of breaking any laws, nor am I attempting to limit the free speech of any business owner who wants to support any candidate for any office that he or she chooses.

What I am saying is that if we’re serious about reducing crime, improving public health, and building strong neighborhoods, we need to make some serious changes. We need to create proximity rules between schools and licensed premises. We need to think about reducing the number of alcohol permits we issue as a city. We need to have strict criteria for responsible tavern owners to follow and institute swift and severe penalties when businesses fail to follow them. We need to create clear ethics rules for elected officials who receive money from the very businesses they are tasked with regulating.

Most of all, we need to think about why Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in binge drinking and drunken driving, why alcoholism is so prevalent, and what effect the glut 4 of liquor licenses in poor urban communities has on our roadways, our neighborhoods, and our families.5

We need to do all of this, and we need to do it now.

1 Data obtained from City of Milwaukee at: http://itmdapps.milwaukee.1 gov/publicApplication_SR/aldermanicDistrict/aldermanicDistrictfm.faces

2 see previous note

3 Per campaign finance documents obtained from the Milwaukee Election Commission. “Licensed establishment” here is meant to refer to a business with a license to serve or sell alcohol, wine, fermented malt beverages, or any combination of thereof.

4 According to the “Wisconsin Epidemiological Profile on Alcohol and Other Drug Use, 2014,” prepared by the Office of Health Informatics, Division of Public Health, in consultation with the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Available on the web at: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/publications/p4/p45718-14.pdf

5 For more on Alcohol use and its effects in Wisconsin, see the above-referenced report.

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7 thoughts on “Bob Donovan’s Tavern Problem”

  1. Casey says:

    Yes…..we should all avoid southside “dive” bars and only drink at trendy places.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    And only trendy bars should endorse candidates for office.

  3. Jerad says:

    Sounds like you could use a drink, Justin.

  4. Dreb says:

    Barb Donovan is a local hero. His pattern of ‘starting em early’ has been one all other districts have admitted to trying to understand. there have been some growing pains over the last 50 yrs, but Barg knows what he’s doing and we do too, lagging less than a few others.

  5. Ted Chisholm says:

    The Common Council’s control of liquor licensing in Milwaukee is a legitimate election issue. Chicago and Minneapolis grant, deny, and suspend liquor licenses through an orderly process overseen by the executive branch. The “aldermanic privilege” system which we use, replete with its controversies, quasi-judicial committee hearings, is outmoded and absurd. The role of aldermen is to legislate and to represent constituents, not to regulate taverns.

  6. Just me says:

    Nice try, Justin. As you imply in your own intro, the corner tavern has been a “thing” in Milwaukee looong before Donovan was even born. My own grandmother, in her 80’s still recalls “a tavern on every corner” from her own childhood. If your allegation is that Donovan, by virtue of being a bar patron and accepting campaign donations somehow causes drunk driving and binge drinking, that’s a fantastic leap of logic that you fail to support with any facts.

    Yes, the local Alderman does have a great deal of influence over tavern licensing. But once a bar is licensed once, it is actually really difficult to shut them down. There’s this little thing we have in America called “due process”. Even if Donovan wanted to close a bar, it would require evidence (like legitimate police reports) and testimony (from neighbors/witnesses who can speak to negative activity). Too often no on calls the police and no one comes to Licensing Committee hearings to give testimony. Contrary to what you’re implying, Donovan – no Alderman, in fact – can just issue an edict and make a shut down happen.

    By the way, the number of licensed premises in Donovan’s district was closer to 120 when he first took office in 2008, so I’d say getting the number down to 45 is pretty darn responsible of him.

  7. Justin Bielinski says:

    Times were different in the 1980s. Poverty was not prevalent as it is now in the 8th district.

    I agree with you, it is far too hard to shut down bars due to state law (and the tavern league). However, it’s not as if Bob has been leading the charge. As for lack of testimony, there is very little public notice given before licenses are up for renewal (just a 200-ft radius around the property I believe). I know for a fact that people have called the police numerous times on certain establishments, and nothing is done.

    The number of licenses is not 45, that is just taverns. It’s 78 including retail, which is often just as bad for a neighborhood. My criticism is larger than Donovan, it speaks to the way the city is planned. However, as Mr Public safety, Bob should be a leader on this issue, and should not have as his unofficial slogan “vote for Bob and have a beer.”

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