A panel named by the new Baltimore Liquor Board chairman to update the agency’s rules is dominated by liquor industry representatives, including four prominent lawyers who represent licensees.
Staff lawyers for the Community Law Center, who have spearheaded the push for reform of the oft-criticized agency, asked to be part of the Rules and Regulations Rewrite Committee, but were not selected.
Liquor attorneys and liquor licensees make up a seven-member majority of the 12-member board.
The formation of the committee was announced Friday by Liquor Board Chairman Benjamin A. Neil and Commissioner Douglas H. Trotter, the new commissioners named to the three-member liquor board by Gov. Larry Hogan.
“The list tells me that these rules are going to be rewritten in a way that will put up additional barriers and that will make it harder for communities to fight nuisance bars,” said Matthew Gonter, housing code committee chair for the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, one of several community leaders who reviewed the emailed release over the weekend.
Among the names drawing concern is that of the chairman of the rules rewrite panel – attorney Stanley Fine, a City Hall fixture who advocates for some of Baltimore’s largest hospitality industry entities on zoning and liquor matters.
Among his clients is the Horseshoe Casino on Russell Street, the only entity in the city that holds a 24-hour liquor license.
Also named to the group are longtime liquor lawyers Melvin J. Kodenski and Abraham L. Hurdle, who share office space.
Another attorney on the group is former state senator John A. Pica Jr., whose name turns up in stories about the liquor board going back to the 1990s and who recently represented the Latin Palace, whose license was shut down last year for multiple violations.
Pica is now listed as “of counsel” at a Towson law firm. He previously worked out of the lobby shop of Lisa Harris Jones and her partner husband, Sean Malone, a former top aide to ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Chairman of KAGRO
Along with four liquor lawyers, the committee includes one other lawyer, former Community Law Center attorney Michelle Wirzberger, now of the Midtown Benefits District.
Three people are listed on the release as licensees: Victoria Schlassler of Spirits of Mt. Vernon, Peter Kimos of Peter’s Pour House downtown, and David Kim.
Liquor Board secretary Nadine Davis today told The Brew that Kim is not a licensee. She said Kim should be more properly identified as chairman of KAGRO, the Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland.
Kim recently lashed out at Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, calling her “a racist” for her zoning crackdown on non-conforming liquor stores.
“Out of Balance”
Critics of the rules group said it is improperly weighted in favor of licensees.
Karen Stokes, CEO of Strong City Baltimore (formerly the Greater Homewood Community Corporation), said her group was concerned about the balance of representation on the committee.
“A representative from the Community Law Center should have been chosen,” she said.
Noting that licensees and liquor lawyers make up a solid majority of the panel, Fells Prospect community activist Victor Corbin also called the rules rewrite group out-of-balance.
“I question licensees being on a committee that is drafting rules and regulations, this seems to be a conflict-of-interest,” Corbin said in emailed remarks. “Their interests are more then represented by the attorneys on the committee.”
Stokes and Corbin both noted that membership on the board appears to be heavily weighted towards midtown and downtown.
“Why was no one from Canton, Federal Hill or Fells Point appointed to the committee, since we have the largest percentages of bars and liquor establishments in the city,” Corbin said.
He also questioned why there are no Latino members of the committee and, other than Parker, none who are African-American.
Rules not Updated Since 1998
Community Law Center staff attorney and watchdog blogger Rebecca Lundberg Witt also criticized the rules review committee, saying she doesn’t question the presence of liquor interests on the panel, just the preponderance of them.
“That is the problem,” Witt said. “Obviously there should be some licensees’ attorneys on the committee.”
The Law Center has a long history of representing community clients before the board and pushing the state to reform the agency.
Along with community activists, the group prodded state officials to look into the liquor board, leading to the release of the scathing 2013 audit. Subsequent reform legislation required that the board update its rules and regulations by October 31, 2015.
But although the audit required a rules review, it did not mandate the creation of a committee. That idea, the brainchild of former Chairman Stephan A. Fogleman, languished during the tenure of the most recent chairman, retired judge Thomas Ward.
Liquor Board Executive Secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth said the meetings of the rules rewrite group are open to the public.
The first session will be tomorrow (Tuesday, Aug. 4) from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Liquor Board’s offices at 231 E. Baltimore Street, 6th floor.
Here is the full list of committee members:
• Stanley Fine, attorney – Chair
• Abraham Hurdle, attorney
• Michelle Wirzberger, community – Midtown Benefits District
• John A. Pica, attorney
• John E. Gavrillis, community – Greater Greektown Development
• Steven Johnson, community – Mount Vernon
• Melvin J. Kodenski, attorney
• William Bauer, community – Hampden Community Council **
• Richard Parker, community – Citizens of Pigtown
• Victoria Schassler, licensee
• Peter Kimos, licensee
• David Kim, licensee*
*Liquor Board executive secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth said this afternoon “there was an error,” and Kim may be switched out for a true licensee.
** Another apparent error in the press release is reported by Shannon Dawkins Wrenn, Hampden Community Council board member. Bauer will not be representing the HCC on the BLLC Regulations Committee, Wrenn said, noting that he hadn’t been approved by the HCC to serve as their representative. “It was I guess a misunderstanding on the part of the Liquor Board,” Wrenn said, adding that “Will himself had not been informed about” being named to the committee by the Liquor Board. “He didn’t know about any of this,” she continued. “He didn’t know about this meeting tomorrow.” Bauer basically confirmed what she said. Speaking with The Brew tonight, he said he expressed interest in sitting on the rules committee during the Fogleman era. He said he acts as a consultant to “help people across the city go through the liquor board process” and had been “pleased and honored to be considered” for the rules update. Bauer said no one at the Liquor Board consulted him before putting his name on the Friday press release and identifying him as an HCC representative. Although he is a vice president and treasurer of the HCC, he said he never held himself out as representing them on the rules committee.