Blue Island City Council upholds revocation of Raven’s Place, The Vault licenses

The Blue Island City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday to uphold Mayor Fred Bilotto’s decision to revoke the business licenses for Raven’s Place and The Vault, two bars located next to each other in the 13000 block of Western Avenue.

Both businesses were shut down under an emergency order Jan. 1 after Blue Island officials say a customer left The Vault New Year’s Eve and fired a gun into the air from a municipal parking lot, and business licenses were not renewed for 2023.

During a hearing held Jan. 6, the City Council upheld the decision to keep the businesses closed. Tuesday’s vote came during a special meeting to hear an appeal from the businesses.

The council met in closed session for about 20 minutes before voting to uphold the mayor’s revocation. Third Ward Ald. Nancy Rita was not at the meeting.

First Ward Ald. Dexter Johnson said Wednesday the council was directed to refer all questions to city administrator Thomas Wogan because of pending litigation.

“We expected this. There was no surprise,” said Raymond Thomas, manager of Raven’s Place and The Vault. “Now, it’s time to go to court.”

Heather Ryan, Thomas’ attorney, urged the council Tuesday to overturn the mayor’s decision because the evidence presented at the Jan. 6 hearing was “hearsay” or statements from the arrestee and police officers.

“There was no evidence presented that any criminal act or gun violence ever occurred on or within the licensee’s premises or parking lot,” Ryan said. “There is absolutely no independent corroboration that that individual was at The Vault that evening.”

Thomas cannot be held responsible for what customers do after leaving his businesses, Ryan said.

“We cannot require Mr. Thomas to follow each and every alleged patron of his establishment to their vehicles to make sure that somebody doesn’t make a stupid mistake,” she said. “How far does the licensee have to follow the patrons out of the city bounds to not be blamed for gunfire incidents or other unlawful incidents?”

Erin Blake, an attorney with the city, said city code dictates the mayor’s order shouldn’t be reversed by the council “unless it was demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that the previous ruling by the mayor was invalid because it was made on unreasonable grounds.”

In Bilotto’s order, issued Jan. 10, he stated Raven’s Place is a nuisance after “a pattern of reckless, harmful, and negligent conduct” by the business leadership.

Thomas said the business opened in Blue Island in 2013 and said he and others affiliated with the business “are questioning how our relationship with this city went south.”

“How did we get here? We have supported the community and current administration with fundraisers and donations to maintain our friendly, open relationship,” Thomas said.

Earlier this month, Thomas filed a lawsuit against the city and Bilotto, who is also the liquor commissioner, for violating the manager’s and owner’s 14th Amendment rights and property rights.

Thomas told the council Tuesday he signed an agreement with city officials in May 2021 after “an incident that occurred,” but said he also told officials the agreement would negatively affect the business.

Bilotto and city staff met with Thomas to draft the safety agreement following a shooting at The Vault in May 2021, which included restrictions such as no one under 30 being allowed into Raven’s Place and no one under 25 allowed into The Vault, according to the lawsuit.

In September 2022, following a shooting in a municipal lot near Raven’s Place after the business closed in which Wogan said two people were injured, city officials wanted to increase restrictions, Thomas said. He said he decided not to sign that agreement because it would “cripple” the business.

“During this same year, there were multiple shootings inside of venues in Blue Island where people were injured ... yet our agreement contained much harsher and restrictive penalties than other agreements imposed on those establishments,” Thomas said.

Thomas told the City Council Tuesday Bilotto decided to revoke the business’ liquor licenses Oct. 17, 2022, after Thomas did not agree to sign another agreement. Thomas appealed the decision to the state Liquor Control Commission, which allowed the businesses to reopen until the appeal was heard, he said.

“The liquor commission revoked our liquor license for an incident that did not happen on our property and was not provoked by anything that happened inside of our venue,” Thomas said. “This incident was very unfortunate, and I wish it had never happened.”

Thomas said no one approached him to review security footage or ID scanner data after New Year’s Eve to confirm if the person who fired a gun into the air from the nearby municipal parking lot had been at the business that night.

Thomas said he was informed Jan. 3 the business licenses were likely going to be revoked.

“The complete lack of transparency, unwillingness to communicate and tactics used to close the business again has shown our organization that the current city administration does not value the relationship we have built over the past decade,” Thomas said.

Wogan said Bilotto would not give direct interviews about the revoked licenses, but provided a statement from the city saying the revocation “was not an action that was taken lightly by the mayor or the council,” but the decision was reached based on facts, according to the statement.

“The facts in this case showed that Raven’s Place LLC have operated their establishment in an unsafe manner that has become a dangerous nuisance to the city,” according to the statement. “Blue Island is a city that welcomes all and treats everyone equally. The safety of our residents is our primary concern and it is out of that concern that the decision was made to revoke the license.”