Liquor Commission Ruling on Joe's Station House Likely Weeks Away
Lawyers for the Town of Normal and a local business accused of violating COVID-19 restrictions faced off Tuesday at a Liquor Commission hearing, but a decision on the matter isn’t expected for several weeks.
Still, Tom DeVore, who represents the owners of Joe’s Station House Pizza and Pub, said after the hearing, if Normal rules against his clients--brothers Joe and Tony Wargo--he'll appeal the case to the Illinois State Liquor Commission. The Wargos attended the hearing, but declined to comment to WGLT.
No one disputes that indoor dining took place at Joe’s.
During the hearing at Normal City Hall, Normal Police officers testified that while responding to complaints on Nov. 6, Nov. 13, and Dec. 11, indoor patrons were found eating and drinking at the pub’s bar and tables. That last violation followed Mayor Chris Koos sending a warning letter Nov. 16, pleading for compliance. Koos also serves as the town's liquor commissioner.
But at issue, according to DeVore, is whether a local governing body such as the liquor commission has legal authority to enforce a gubernatorial executive order. DeVore also called the application of Restore Illinois orders unfair and irrational. He's represented several clients in Illinois fighting Gov. JB Pritzker's mitigation rules.
“How is it rational?” he asked, that a bar and restaurant in an airport is permitted to have hundreds of people, while a small business like Joe’s can’t have indoor customers.
“Whether it was dangerous or not is irrelevant,” said Normal city attorney Brian Day. He said hat Joe’s violated provisions of the liquor code--specifically to follow the laws of the state, and to comply with public health and safety regulations. “For that reason, we are asking a penalty be imposed,” said Day.
Joe’s could face a fine, or have its liquor license suspended or revoked. The Wargo brothers have been vocal in their opposition to the Restore Illinois’ ban on indoor dining. However, the pair, are listed as recipients of a state-issued, two Business Interrruption Grants $20,000 each for the Normal pub, as well as the Bloomington Joe's location. Those grants are dependant on following Restore Illinois rules.
“The fact that we would prefer a different law, and many of us would, that’s not the issue,” said Day.
Day argued that Pritzker's executive orders meet the criteria for being state law. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act gives Pritzker the authority to issue these orders, which have the force of law, said Day.
“All attempts to say he doesn’t have failed in court,” he added, citing November’s Illinois Appellate Court ruling in the Fox Fire Tavern case, out of Kane County.
But DeVore drew applause from a dozen people attending the hearing, when he argued a liquor commission lacks the authority to enforce such orders. DeVore said that’s because it’s not an agency created under the IEMA Act. “There hasn’t been a hearing before the state liquor commissioner” on this point, he noted.
While DeVore said a liquor commission was tasked solely with addressing liquor violations, Day disagreed, citing several cases in Illinois where liquor commissions penalized license holders. He gave case examples where owners had licenses suspended or revoked for ignoring illegal drug activity, illegal weapons possession, and prostitution.
DeVore also argued local governments lack the authority to enforce an Illinois governor’s executive orders, and instead are trying to create "workarounds" that, in effect, shut down bars and restaurants such as Joe's.
“If an executive order was enforceable, why doesn’t the governor’s office or any state office enforce it?” asked Devore.
Retired attorney Todd Greenburg, who spent most of his career as Bloomington’s city attorney, presided as the designated hearing officer. He issued a continuance, to gather transcripts of Tuesday’s hearing. He’s expected to present his findings and recommendation to Normal Liquor Commission, within 60 days. The members of the Normal Town Council make up the commission, with Koos at the helm.
Councilman Stan Nord, who has made clear he's opposed to enforcement of Pritzker's executive orders regarding indoor dining, did attend Tuesday's hearing--sitting in the audience with other observers.
The night before, during the Normal Town Council's regular meeting, Nord criticized town officials for bringing charges against Joe's Station House owners, and calling the liquor commission hearing. He told Koos he would oppose any potential penalty in the case.
Masks were required of everyone at Tuesday's hearing.
Day said Joe’s is the first, and only business in Normal, to face liquor-related penalties related to COVID. Meanwhile, the City of Bloomington has collected nearly $5,000 in fines from at least nine businesses.
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