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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen11:08 amJun 6, 20130

After scorching Liquor Board audit, a watchdog blog is launched

A Community Law Center attorney will be reporting on the board’s weekly meetings. Her blog will be highlighted in THE BREW.

Above: A request to reopen this tavern in South Baltimore came before the Liquor Board last week.

Empowered to issue and regulate all the liquor licenses in Baltimore, the Liquor Board has historically had a huge impact on city neighborhoods – and also triggered long-running criticism that it is a lax and ineffective agency loaded with political patronage positions.

That’s why in March, when the state Office of Legislative Audits released a scathing performance audit on the board, many community members and other critics felt vindicated.

Under-performing and yet over-staffed, failing to follow state law in awarding licenses, prematurely closing out 311 complaints, handling inspections inconsistently – the problems highlighted in the 91-page audit had such a ring of truth that even the Board’s executive secretary Samuel T. Daniels Jr., in his official response to the audit, acknowledged it was “thorough and insightful.”

But will any of the 24 recommendations in the document be implemented?

To find out, the Community Law Center (which has been representing neighborhoods before the Liquor Board for decades) decided to assign an attorney to attend the board’s weekly meetings at City Hall and blog about what she sees.

“We felt it was important to do a blog to offer the public some concrete information and examples of what happens at the Liquor Board and what it means,” said Law Center attorney Christina Schoppert Devereux, who will be writing weekly posts for “Booze News: Distilled in Room 215

“We want to help Baltimore residents to make the connection between the audit’s specific recommendations and what’s happening in their neighborhoods,” said Devereux.

Her weekly posts will be highlighted, with a link, as a regular feature on The Brew’s homepage.

One of the elements of the blog, Devereux said, will be noting the specific audit issues raised with each case that comes before the three-member panel.

Right off the bat, the first post on the blog (from last week’s May 30 meeting) finds lingering problems.

The board decided, for instance, to allow one establishment, a South Baltimore tavern, to reopen even though they appeared in a publicly available database to be “not in good standing,” with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. (Since then, their status has changed to being “good standing.” Devereux reports to us, and it’s unclear when exactly that happened.)

The audit had recommended that the Liquor Board staff verify that applicants are in good standing with the taxation agency and can document it.

“We’ll be paying close attention to whether or not the audit seems to have had an effect on day-to-day procedures,” Devereux said.

Follow-up appears to be warranted. The March audit of the Liquor Board notes that there had been a critical 2007 City audit with nine recommendations for reform, but that it did not appear to have had much impact. “Many of the conditions noted in the City’s audit report continue to exist,” the report said.

Educating Readers

Part of the blog’s purpose is just to educate readers about the often Byzantine nature of the decades-old entity, formally the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City.

The very term “Liquor Board,” Devereux writes in the blog, can be confusing “because it refers to both the three commissioners who hear licensing cases in a quasi-judicial setting and to the entire administrative agency charged with processing licenses and fees.”

The commissioners are appointed by the governor following recommendations by Baltimore city senators. Though the board is a state agency and not directly controlled by the city, its revenue from fees and fines is turned over to the city, and the city’s budget funds its operations.

“Distilled in Room 215”

Adding to the impression of an entity inclined to play by its own rules are the observations detailed in the audit: lack of written policies and procedures for inspectors, failure to monitor inspectors, inspectors reportedly turning in inspections for defunct establishments, uncollected fines and license payments, failure to document required criminal background checks, etc.

The board even formally declared its intention to ignore some aspects of the auditor’s critique, including their recommendation that the panel follow the law and terminate the licenses of establishments that do not use them for a year.

It was a “matter of interpretation clashing with the principle of discretion,” Daniels wrote.

That quality, Devereux said, was the reason for the subtitle: “Distilled in Room 215,” the second-floor City Hall hearing room where the weekly meetings take place.

“Similar to homegrown distilleries around the country, the Liquor Board has a certain personal basement-garage originality to it. A little bit of a ‘let’s just figure it out as we go along’ approach,” said Devereux.

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