Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Bar Licensing Issues Causes Council Floor Fight

Milwaukee's recent court losses on tavern suspensions causing mounting frustratiion.

By - Mar 22nd, 2023 04:16 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee’s process to discipline tavern owners is under siege with several court decisions overturning suspensions and votes to close businesses. But on Tuesday, the council might have managed to make matters worse.

One alderman flip-flopped on how big of a suspension he wanted, the council openly discussed privileged legal advice with its attorney and another council member blasted a new assistant city attorney.

Then the council voted in opposition to the advice of assistant city attorney Christopher Jackson.

The council entered Tuesday’s meeting ready with a recommendation from its Licenses Committee to issue a 60-day suspension to Infinity Lounge, 4001 W. Fond du Lac Ave.

Area Alderman Khalif Rainey supported that suspension. “The way this establishment has been run, it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens,” said the alderman during a March 7 license renewal hearing.

But, without initial explanation, he softened his stance on March 21. He moved that only a 10-day suspension be issued, which would have been combined with the three-week closure the business was already under as a result of its license expiring.

Then Ald. Mark Borkowski, vice chair of the Licenses Committee, began to vent.

Borkowski expressed frustration that the bar had appeared repeatedly before the committee and that the committee’s decision was about to be watered down. “I’ve bit my tongue,” said Borkowski. “It needs to be said it gets very, very tiring as a committee member to have this come before our committee on a regular basis.”

His speech was enough to flip Rainey back to his original position, a 60-day suspension.

“Thank you Alderman Borkowski. I appreciate you being the conscience of the council on this decision,” said Rainey.

Rainey said he had only moved to reduce the suspension at the advice of the City Attorney’s Office. “They’re telling me they’re not certain how defendable this is. They don’t know if it has demonstrated the progression needed,” said Rainey.

Motion withdrawn, back to a recommendation of 60 days.

That triggered Ald. Scott Spiker to ask to pause the meeting to discuss the matter with attorney Jackson in private. Common Council President José G. Pérez used the opportunity to air his own grievances.

“Frankly, I am just tired of these going to court and getting overturned. I don’t think it’s fair to our constituents,” said Pérez. “I will remind our constituents that judges get elected too and to be very conscious of that.”

“President Pérez is right. There have been a series of cases in recent times that we have not been successful in… for a variety of reasons,” said Alderwoman and Licenses Committee chair Milele A. Coggs. She said it wasn’t just judges that were the problem. She also cited issues with evidentiary reports from the Milwaukee Police Department.

“There has consistently been an issue with having those thorough reports there to support what neighbors and others are coming to the table” about “problem institutions in our districts,” said Coggs. “If I am just 100% transparent, we have not been getting the quality of reports we need in recent times.”

She said neighbors will say they have called the police department several times, but no records of those complaints are available at the hearing. MPD produces a journal-like record of any interactions between the police department and the licensee.

By the time Coggs had finished speaking, Spiker had returned with legal advice from Jackson.

“The alderman of the district is in an impossible position,” said Spiker. But he would offer an appropriate motion, he added: “I would rely on the judgment of our city attorney, attorney Jackson. I make the motion for the 10-day [suspension].”

That resulted in Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II calling Jackson before the entire council.

“City Attorney, what are you recommending to my colleague in reverse of what he really wants to do for his constituents and his neighborhood?” asked Stamper.

“My recommendation is simply what was before us at the committee hearing,” said Jackson, referencing the police report and testimony at the committee. “Based on everything that was before us at the time, the record, if I’m being honest, didn’t quite meet the standard for a 60-day suspension.”

But Jackson said the City Attorney’s Office would defend the case.

“Whatever the committee recommends, we can defend,” said the attorney. But he said the record wasn’t “as thick as we wanted to be.”

“The concern I have is when you go to court. If you recommend one thing and then you defend another, doesn’t that weaken your case?” asked Stamper.

“Not in my opinion,” said Jackson. “The only thing we can do is defend what we have in front of us.”

Then Borkowski laid into Jackson.

“With all due respect, I don’t remember you opining that the 60 days was too severe and that we should go with 10,” said the alderman. “I don’t believe that’s your role… I’m troubled that all of the sudden now you have this change of heart. I find that very unusual, and I find it very disturbing.”

He said it wasn’t the attorney’s role to make suspension recommendations.

“I did not make a recommendation to the entire committee,” said Jackson. He said he only offered his opinion when approached privately by members. “I thought that would be done in my legal role in confidence. That’s why I didn’t address the entire committee.”

“I stand with my point of disappointment in you,” said Borkowski. “I know that you’re new to this position and to this committee and I would caution you that if you want to be a member of the Common Council, then run for it.”

That sent some council members to slam their metaphorical panic button.

“Okay, okay, thank you,” said Alderwoman Marina Dimitirjevic, serving as acting council president.

“I think we should just shut this down. It’s not making us look strong for current defense and future defense in court,” said Stamper.

“I support the advice of Alderman Stamper there, but let’s go onto Alderman Spiker,” said Dimitrijevic, noting that more council members still had their lights on to talk.

Spiker, in a series of questions to Jackson, clarified that everything Jackson said was admissible in court. He thanked the City Attorney’s Office for doing its job by providing advice in private. “I see your role in offering legal advice and that’s what you’re doing here,” said the alderman.

Coggs, an attorney and longtime committee chair, attempted to rebuild a positive case record for Jackson. “Although no legal case is perfect, and the abundance of the evidence may never be perfect, do you believe based upon the police report, neighborhood testimony and video evidence and everything that was provided as evidence, that although you may like a more perfect case, that you can defend the 60 days that was preferred at committee?”

“Yes, ma’am, I can defend the 60 days,” said Jackson. Pérez then called the question, ending the debate.

Spiker’s motion for a 10-day suspension failed. Only Spiker and Ald. Robert Bauman voted for it. The full council then unanimously adopted the 60-day suspension as part of adopting all of the committee’s recommendations.

Attorney Michael Maistelman, who is representing bar owner Mario Spencer, told Urban Milwaukee his client intends to sue to overturn the suspension. He said he intends to use the record created publicly during Tuesday’s meeting.

For more on why Infinity Lounge received a suspension, see our coverage from Tuesday that details complaints of noise, violence, litter and alleged strippers.

Rainey was also a central figure in a strange case that involved a November 2022 court decision overturning his attempt to close a gas station whose owner failed to report a pornographic video being filmed in the store without permission. The gas station owner’s attorney called it a matter of “aldermanic privilege.”

The alderman’s change of heart was also central to the city’s loss of a new meatpacking plant for Strauss Brands in Century City, and another case where the whole council followed the position of the local council member.

But Rainey isn’t the only council member to have a court overturn a licensing decision against his wishes.

A Family Dollar store in Bauman’s near west side district beat the city in court. Walker’s Lounge in Pérez’s district continues to operate pending the outcome of a lawsuit, even after the alderman led his colleagues in voting to deny renewal of its liquor license.

One thought on “City Hall: Bar Licensing Issues Causes Council Floor Fight”

  1. steenwyr says:

    “neighbors will say they have called the police department several times, but no records of those complaints are available at the hearing.”

    Having been one of those neighbors, I’ll share with anyone reading: The magic words to get MPD to do their part here is “I wish to be a complainant” — say it on the phone to dispatch, say it to the responding officer. They won’t volunteer this information willingly….

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