Highland Park, News

Highland Park councilmembers, business leaders continue to stick up for Jeff Hoobler

Discussion around a long-standing provision in Highland Park’s municipal code is still brewing four weeks after the City Council pored over the clause, which prohibits elected officials from being issued a liquor license. 

Jeff Hoobler, the councilmember and Ravinia Brewing Company co-owner at the center of those discussions, was absent during the city council’s meeting Monday, March 11, but the first-term elected official was still a point of conversation during the proceedings. 

Shortly after a series of proclamations were read by Mayor Nancy Rotering, Councilmember Andrés Tapia addressed what he described as “the seemingly unresolved issues around councilmember Hoobler’s status as well as (the) ordinance that has generated a lot of debate.” 

Prefacing his comments by noting he was speaking from the corazón, the Spanish word for “heart,” Tapia said he believes the issue is one that is leaving many residents and business owners feeling “confused, frustrated and even angry.” 

Tapia went on to add that he feels there’s a “greater frustration even with us here in City Council that we’re at a stalemate, that we have not provided a clear way forward and that it remains unresolved.” 

As previously reported by The Record, 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 to rescind that restriction. Highland Park has around 30,000 residents

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.

The future of Hoobler’s status as a Highland Park councilmember — and the fate of his business’s liquor license — have remained in question since. 

Hoobler was elected to the City Council in 2023 and was the election’s top vote-getter among five candidates, collecting 2,355 votes, or 21.84%, with three seats available.

Tapia described the situation as a “Gordian Knot,” saying that officials are “having a hard time unraveling it.” 

“I think good legislation and legislating means that we have to find a way to unravel things that seem to be intersecting and creating a seemingly unsolvable knot to untie,” Tapia said. “So, we have to kind of do it thread by thread  … and we have to find the different lanes to solve the different issues that do intersect with each other, but have their own lanes.”

Tapia urged his peers to consider the actual ordinance in question and its relevance to today’s times, defining a clear explanation for what a conflict of interest is and clarifying the council’s policies and ethics and behaviors. 

Tapia concluded his remarks by saying that Highland Park has long been a leader among its peers while arguing that this is another opportunity to “lead again on a topic that on its own merits seems to warrant a robust discussion.”

“I think we need to be looking out for the best interests of our community,” Tapia added. “Our community is hurting. … I run in many different circles here in Highland Park and in every single one of the circles there is confusion and anger and frustration, and we have to listen to them. 

“Regardless of what we have to work out here on each of these lanes, let’s free up our citizens from the angst, the uncertainty and the lack of confidence in our leadership and resolve this once and for all and really do some good legislation. I think we should find a way out.”

Councilmember Annette Lidawer, who along with Tapia and Yumi Ross were the three supporters of the Feb. 12 proposed amendment to revise the provision in the City’s code, said she believed the council was on its way to finding resolution. 

Lidawer noted that the council is scheduled to meet in early April during a Committee of the Whole session to discuss ethics and solidify what the responsibilities of councilmembers are. She also urged the board to revote on amending the ordinance shortly after that meeting. 

Additionally, Lidawer again restated her preference for knowing more information on how Highland Park’s peers have handled the matter. 

“We need to know what other towns have done,” she said. “So many of these towns did not even know that this was on the books. That’s no one’s fault. Mistakes were made in so many measures; there’s no finger pointing. They didn’t know. But now that we do know, the question is whether this is applicable in today’s world and how we go on and lead from here and heal from here, because, I, too have heard so much pain and so much anger and I don’t think that’s good for our town.” 

Councilmember Anthony Blumberg, one of the dissenters during the Feb. 12 vote, agreed with his peers regarding the importance of resolving the matter.  

“Nobody is up here trying to hurt anybody in public or trying to do something that we do not feel is best for the City of Highland Park,” he said. “With that in mind, I agree that it is important to resolve this issue, but to do it in a way that we typically pass or amend ordinances on the City Council and that’s what I’m looking forward to.” 

Rotering clarified the discussion by saying that the board’s meeting in April won’t touch on amending the liquor code.

“When we do talk about ethics and conflict of interest, that will be the subject matter — we will be discussing that broadly as it applies to people who serve on this council, serve on our commissions,” she said. “We won’t be talking about an amendment to the liquor code at that conversation.” 

‘We demand full representation’

Iris Dhalawong, a Highland Park resident who owns Ruby of Siam on 2nd Street, read a letter during the public comment portion of the meeting authored by HP restaurant owners signaling a “direct plea for immediate action, for change, and for the protection of the vibrancy and diversity” of Highland Park. 

Dhalawong said he was speaking on behalf of the “present and future restaurant owners of Highland Park, specifically HP residents who hold liquor licenses as part of our basic function in the community.” 

In the detailed letter, which was sent to the council prior to the meeting, restaurant owners argued their “voices are being muffled.”

“Being able to vote and hold public office is a fundamental right that comes with being an American citizen,” the letter states. “While we certainly appreciate the opportunity to sit on a local commission and freely engage in public debate, we demand full representation and the ability to have a seat at the most important table in town: the City Council. 

“New and existing small business operators must be given the same rights as any other business owners in Highland Park. We demand the ability to vote on matters important to everyone, now and in the future.” 

Restaurant owners also argued in the letter their contention is “much larger than alcohol.”

“With vast amounts of money being spent by the city of Highland Park to attract new restaurants and to enhance the existing ones, it’s utterly preposterous that those same restaurants are currently denied the ability to vote on such matters,” the letter reads. “And if those votes should relate to alcohol, a recusal would be issued. This is no different than any other conflict of interest in small towns governed by residents.” 

Dhalawong, acting as the spokesperson for the contingent of owners, said that Highland Park restaurants are “forums for debate and discussion and are the birthplace of ideas that move our community forward and attract new visitors and residents.” 

The letter concluded by arguing that the ordinance is outdated:

“In a community as progressive and diverse as Highland Park in the year 2024, denying restaurant owners with liquor licenses the ability to vote on the council is inconsistent with modern times.”

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.

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