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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Missourian Claims City Barred Business Because He’s Muslim

A Palestinian businessman sued the mayor and aldermen of a small city next door to Ferguson, Mo., claiming they denied him a business license because he's Muslim.

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A Palestinian businessman sued the mayor and aldermen of a small city next door to Ferguson, Mo., claiming they denied him a business license because he's Muslim.

Mohammed Almuttan brought federal complaint against the city of Country Club Hills, its Mayor Bender McKinney, and Aldermen Douglas Coonce, Donald Fraser and Tiawana Thompson.

Most of his ire is directed against the mayor.

He claims McKinney called him and his family “trash” and “illegals,” said that “those people should go home,” that “we do not want them in our neighborhood” and told the city police chief to have officers “sit” in their parking lot to harass them and deter business, which the chief refused to do.

“Mayor McKinney vowed to do whatever it took to run them out of town,” the Feb. 10 complaint states.

McKinney did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment left Tuesday morning at City Hall. Country Club Hills, like Ferguson, is a northern suburb of St. Louis.

“We’re not looking to put in a Larry Flynt’s Hustler Boutique or a bar,” Almuttan’s attorney Jay Kanzler said in an interview.

“I’m not passing judgment on those types of businesses, but this is just a Laundromat.”

Co-plaintiff Ruba LLC, of which Almuttan is the sole member, will operate the Laundromat, if it ever goes in.

Almuttan says he and his family have pumped $2 million into their businesses at a time when no one else wanted to invest in Country Club Hills. He already owns a grocery store and plans to open a convenience store as well as the Laundromat that is the subject of the complaint.

Country Club Hills has a land area of just 0.18 square miles in north St. Louis County. Its population of 1,271 is 90.9 percent black and its median household income of $24,553 is less than half the Missouri’s median, according to city-data.com.

The small municipality borders Ferguson, where the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests brought federal reforms to the area. The reforms included a limit on the amount of revenue towns like Country Club Hills can bring in through traffic tickets.

Further adding to Country Club Hills’ economic problems is a recent court ruling outlawing speed and red-light cameras, which the city used to bring in revenue.

“They need businesses to come in,” Kanzler said in the interview. “The mayor’s hatred for my client’s national origin has outweighed what’s best for the city.”

Due to its small size, Country Club Hills delegates building inspections to St. Louis County.

“Mayor McKinney has refused to issue the business license to open the Laundromat business, stating that the proposed business did not meet with his approval or the approval of Alderman Fraser,” the lawsuit states. “Both Mayor McKinney and Alderman Fraser have repeatedly required that they be allowed to ‘inspect’ the Laundromat building and the Laundromat business, even though there is no authority in the ordinances for the mayor or the aldermen to perform inspections on commercial properties.”

Almuttan says the defendants demanded an arbitrary and capricious list of requirements to get a business license, including providing free Wi-Fi service and drop-off and pick-up for customers.

“The city, the mayor and the aldermen have repeatedly complained that operating the Laundromat business as a Laundromat only would not generate enough tax revenue for the city because sales tax is not charged on revenue from washing machines and dryers,” the complaint states.

“The city does charge a once-a-year tax on vending machines that Ruba has paid to the city. Despite this, the city, the mayor and the aldermen have told Ruba they want Ruba to open a business that has more retail operations at the location so sales tax could be collected by the city. The city, the mayor and the aldermen have refused to issue the business license until Ruba agrees to ‘sell’ things at the Laundromat business that would qualify for sales tax, thereby preventing them from operating only a Laundromat.”

On Jan. 11, the defendants attempted to enact an ordinance to would restrict the operation of businesses in the city to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Kanzler said the ordinance would affect his only Almuttan and that 320 residents spoke out against it.

Almuttan asks the court to order the defendants to give him a business license.

U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson on Monday refused to grant Almuttan’s request for a temporary restraining order, but said that he was likely to succeed on the merits of his claim of national origin discrimination.

“It’s bigger than just a Laundromat,” Kanzler said in the interview. “That’s just the issue that’s brought this to a head. It’s the ongoing treatment of my clients’ business. Make no mistake: My clients love Country Club Hills. It is just the mayor and a couple of aldermen who have a problem.”

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Categories / Civil Rights

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