Highland Park, News

Highland Park councilmember alleges and City denies Open Meetings Act violation in wake of Feb. 12 liquor license discussion

Hoobler also criticizes mayor and staff; Council’s Tapia urges unity

Two weeks after the Highland Park City Council failed to amend a restriction in its municipal code that prevents liquor-license holders from serving as an elected official, Jeff Hoobler, the councilmember at the center of those discussions, responded on Monday by criticizing the council, mayor and other city staff for how the discussions were conducted.

Hoobler, a first-term councilmember elected in April 2023, is the co-owner of Highland Park’s Ravinia Brewing Company. He received the most votes, 2,355, or 21.84 percent, in a five-person candidate field for three council seats.

Highland Park’s municipal code, which is based on the post-Prohibition Illinois Liquor Control Act, does not allow elected officials to hold liquor licenses. Amendments to the state law do allow communities with 55,000 residents or fewer — Highland Park has around 30,000 residents — to rescind that restriction.

After the law was brought to the attention of city staff, councilmembers discussed an amendment to change the municipal code on Monday, Feb. 12, but it failed when the council split 3-3. Mayor Nancy Rotering and Councilmembers Kim Stone and Anthony Blumberg dissented. Hoobler did not vote.

Rotering did not respond during Monday’s meeting to Hoobler’s criticism.

‘Slanderous statements and distortions’

On Monday, Feb. 26, Hoobler read a statement where he said, instead of discussing the amendment, the discussion was about him and his actions, calling it an “ethics tribunal” held improperly.

Quoting from a statement made by City Manager Ghida Neukirch, Hoobler said the agenda item regarding the amendment change was “to allow for robust discussion on the city council and about city policy,” instead of a discussion about any particular person or situation.

Hoobler said councilmembers did not stay on task.

“At the moment the issue changed, and every time it lapsed back to ethics, the city’s legal counsel should have stepped up and brought me back to the room so I could address the issues directly and defend myself with respect to the ethics discussion, but they did not,” Hoobler said. “This was a failure of the mayor, the city manager and corporate counsel. They allowed this to occur without me being present, without proper notice per the Open Meetings Act.”

City Manager Ghida Neukirch said the City did not violate the Open Meetings Act, saying that regulations were followed when Hoobler recused himself from an agenda item and while councilmembers discussed their thoughts on the item.

Hoobler went on to say, “My reputation has been tarnished, nasty inferences and comparisons made and now, two weeks later, I’m able to respond to the allegations, slanderous statements and distortions of the facts made by members of the City Council.”

In his statement, Hoobler defended his participation in prior business- and liquor-related council considerations — a topic the council discussed on Feb. 12 — by citing a conversation he had with City Attorney Steve Elrod before he took office.

“Mr. Elrod stated that, in general, I should err on the side of not recusing myself as it relates to discussion of business matters of the city, including business incentive programs, outdoor dining issues, and anything related to restaurants as long as the matter discussed is not directly about my two Highland Park businesses,” Hoobler said. “He stated that the voters of Highland Park, him being one, elected me to bring my expertise and viewpoints as a business restaurant owner to the City Council, so I should not feel forced to recuse myself from those discussions.”

Elrod confirmed that Hoobler’s summary of their discussions was correct.

Hoobler brought up the statement “Together Highland Park Unidos,” or “Together Highland Park United,” which was adopted by the city’s Resiliency Division following the July 4, 2022 shooting, saying he was “very impressed with the thoughtfulness of the statement and the message it conveyed.

“However, it’s become clear that the leadership in Highland Park and the council are anything but together and united. The actions of this council to attempt to scapegoat one of their members as unethical was clearly done for political gain, and that only serves to divide this community.”

Hoobler continued that he will live up to the ideals of the statement and also thanked those who spoke in support of him at the Feb. 12 meeting.

“I chose to serve the voters of Highland Park because we knew the city needs change,” he said. “That message was not always well-received by some, but it’s a message I believe in. You and the other Highland Park residents have made it clear that you want me to continue to serve, and I appreciate all of that regardless of the final outcome.”

Fellow councilmembers respond

Hoobler was not the only councilmember to address the conversation during the Feb. 12 council sessions.

Councilmember Anthony Blumberg spoke first, apologizing to Hoobler for “regrettably” using former U.S. Rep. George Santos’ name when discussing the role of election commissions. Santos was expelled from the House of Representatives in late 2023 for fabricating his credentials and withholding his criminal history.

“In my effort to explain that election commissions are not responsible for determining the qualifications of the candidates, I made a reference to a former New York congressman as an example,” he said. “And unfortunately, in the context of the greater conversation, I inadvertently insulted my colleague, Councilmember Hoobler. I don’t feel that way about you, I respect you, I appreciate your participation here, and I am very sorry.”

Hoobler thanked Blumberg for his apology.

For the next two speakers, Hoobler recused himself and left the room because he was told they “will be discussing matters impacting the manufacture, sale or distribution of alcohol.”

Councilmember Annette Lidawer, who introduced the proposed amendment to the municipal code and voted for its approval Feb. 12, said she was “troubled that the committee of the whole digressed into an ethics discussion where one council member’s ethics were discussed without the benefit of all the facts as to what standards were communicated to him.”

Lidawer and Neukirch said the City Council will be discussing ethics at an April 8 committee of the whole meeting, where Lidawer said the board will “examine some of our ethics guidelines” and invited the public to attend “as corporation counsel will assist us in the context where all questions can be aired by our entire body.”

Regarding the amendment, Lidawer said she hopes the City Council will bring it up for another vote in the future after conducting more research. Specifically, she asked the corporation counsel to look into other municipalities that have discussed changing their liquor laws, specifically “what is the compelling interest the current law is protecting and why other towns which have considered this law concluded that amending it to require the recusal of a City Council member adequately addressed those compelling interests.”

“I look forward to reconsideration and study of this issue, a more respectful and collegial work effort between the members of the City Council and the furtherance of all city business,” she added.

Councilmember Andrés Tapia, who also voted for the amendment, shared his thoughts on what happened at the Feb. 12 meetings and said there is a “division within our own City Council.”

If we were able to put the issue to rest by seeking the path of grace, we remove the vice grip of confrontation that is asphyxiating all of us.”
Andres Tapia, Highland Park councilmember

He said the discussions and vote that happened two weeks earlier were a “stalemate, and not a resolved issue because it did not address the actual dilemma. And this unresolved dilemma is clearly hurting our community.”

Tapia said that he feels the City Council is in a “win-lose” mindset and that he believes it needs to change its mentality.

“Imagine if we were to pause and not force each other to agree on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of this issue, but instead find a way to agree that the most important thing we want to find is the most healing response,” Tapia said. “The one that, even in the midst of the intellectual disagreement on the issue at hand, if we were able to put the issue to rest by seeking the path of grace, we remove the vice grip of confrontation that is asphyxiating all of us.”

Tapia said “hate, division, polarization and confrontation at the national level” is “tearing our country apart.”

“Are we really going to allow this liquor ordinance issue to divide us in such a painful way when there are many more existential threats we must come together to overcome?” he asked. “It is our responsibility, us, the leaders of the City Council, to lead our community, not in a way that leaves us pitted against each other, but instead helps us find common cause and unite.”

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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