The half-sized replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a famed Niles landmark on Touhy Avenue, is in rough shape and needs $600,000 worth of repairs.
But that’s not all that needs fixing in the northern suburb, according to officials there.
The Niles village board just voted to hire a marketing firm to “rebrand,” or improve, the suburb’s image. Among other things, this means a new logo with an eye toward attracting and retaining residents and businesses.
But at the same meeting at which trustees approved the $46,000 marketing contract, the village separately hired an influential lobbyist who’s no stranger to political scandal and whose clients include a group of Downstate strip club owners.
How’s that for rebranding?
Lobbyist Al Ronan is known for having boldly presented legislators with campaign donations in the Statehouse, and was among imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s top fundraisers. But Ronan’s high-powered lobbying firm hit the skids after pleading guilty in 2004 in a bid-rigging scheme that involved a top aide to then-Gov. George Ryan.
Ronan, a former state lawmaker, wasn’t personally charged but a federal judge ordered his since-disbanded company Ronan Potts LLC to pay more than $400,000 in fines and forfeitures.
In the aftermath, Ronan launched a different lobbying firm that now represents nearly 50 private and public-sector clients, including the Illinois Club Owners Association, a nonprofit led by a Downstate strip club operator, records show.
“I don’t hide who I represent,” Ronan tells us. “People hire me because they want me and my team to be their advocate. . . . We do things honestly, honorably and we try to represent our clients’ best interests.”
The Niles village board approved the lobbying contract – a one-year deal totaling $60,000 – with Alfred G. Ronan Ltd. in late May. Ronan’s job is to lobby state officials on whatever issues come up and to help Niles obtain grants for programs and capital improvements.
Niles didn’t have a lobbyist until now. Ronan’s group was hired through a competitive process, officials said.
“We felt we weren’t being represented in terms of funding on the state level,” explains Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo, adding he has limited knowledge of Ronan’s background.
As for what if any effect it may have on the village’s reputation, Przybylo says he fears a proposed gun shop and firing range that would sit near several schools could have a greater impact than any lobbyist, no matter his background.
“No one has called me about [Ronan] but you,” he says. “You say he knows everyone in Springfield. But would you hire someone who didn’t know anyone?”
It’s worth mentioning Niles’ image hasn’t been the best in recent years, since now-former Mayor Nicholas Blase was charged, convicted and, in 2010, sentenced to prison for his role in a kickback scheme.
But local officials say that situation had nothing to do with the rebranding effort, which is geared toward improving the business climate, and attracting younger families and professionals.
In addition to Niles, Ronan lobbies state officials on behalf of municipal governments in Dolton, Franklin Park, Melrose Park and 10 other towns. Even though he also lobbies on behalf of adult entertainment operators, he says he has never asked a municipal client to open one, and in the case of Melrose Park supports the village’s legal fight to shutter a topless club in Stone Park that abuts a convent.
“The clubs don’t hire me to get clubs,” Ronan says. “They hire me when there’s an issue in Springfield to get them a fair shake.”
That’s what happened in 2012 when state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights) pushed legislation that would charge Illinois strip clubs a patron fee or “pole tax” as it came to be known in the media.
Statewide operators opposed the bill, as did Ronan who on behalf of the club owners association lobbied Hutchinson and other lawmakers.
“He worked pretty hard against it,” Hutchinson says. “It was pretty intense. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that” as a legislator.
That lobbying apparently paid off.
Hutchinson originally proposed a $5 per-patron fee, with the money earmarked for state programs aiding sexual assault victims. But thanks in part to Ronan’s intense lobbying the legislation was watered down.
Under the law, which took effect last year, strip club operators who serve or permit alcohol consumption must pay a fee of $3 per person, or a flat tax based on self-reported revenues. Hutchinson had hoped to raise $1 million a year and acknowledges her disappointment that the state collected only about $380,000 last year for sexual assault victims and prevention.
“I didn’t think it was fair to single out the industry,” Ronan says. “You can like strip clubs or you can not like strip clubs. It’s freedom of choice. But they have a right to representation.”
State records show Michael Ocello oversees the Illinois Club Owners Association. He didn’t return messages.
Ronan says the nonprofit, which represents Downstate club owners, pays him $50,000 a year.
“He’s the consummate insider,” Northlake Mayor Jeffrey Sherwin says of Ronan, the suburb’s lobbyist since the late 1990s. “He knows everyone in Springfield.”
Perhaps to that point, during a phone interview with the Better Government Association, Ronan said he had a call on the other line.
“Can you hold, partner? I have the Senate president calling me.”
A press aide to state Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) declined to comment.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9035.