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Politicsby Fern Shen11:49 amFeb 12, 20160

Battle brewing in Annapolis over Hogan-appointed liquor commissioners

Baltimore Liquor Board’s critics are pushing the Maryland Senate to let members’ terms expire by not confirming them

Above: Critics fault the Liquor Board’s decision to reopen the suspended Stadium Lounge ahead of schedule.

Frustrated by actions they say ignore communities’ concerns and are biased toward liquor interests, critics of the Baltimore Liquor Board have been taking their cause to Annapolis, where the three commissioners appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan last July are up for confirmation.

These “recess appointments” by the Republican governor will expire by the end of the legislative session on April 11 unless the Senate Executive Nominations Committee votes to confirm them.

That would be just fine with community activists and attorneys who have been aghast at some of the decisions made by Chairman Benjamin A. Neil and commissioners Douglas H. Trotter and Elizabeth A. Hafey.

“Baltimore City deserves a Board of Liquor License Commissioners that respects and is receptive to the concerns of City residents,” wrote Kristine Dunkerton, executive director of the Community Law Center in a letter to Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-46th).

“This Board has proven itself to be either incapable of following the law or unwilling to do so,” she added.

New commissioners Elizabeth Hafey, right, joins commissioners Trotter and Neil on the Baltimore Liquor Board.

Critics are lobbying city senators against the confirmation of Liquor Board commissioners (l-r) Douglas Trotter, Benjamin Neil and Elizabeth Hafey.

Dunkerton sent a list of examples of “unacceptable actions” by the new commissioners that include:

• giving extra time to liquor applicants to complete transfers that they do not have the authority to give.

• accepting and approving incomplete applications.

• reconsidering decisions without legal authority.

• approving applications without any discussions of the applicants’ past history of liquor law violations.

Community leaders have been calling and sending emails to city senators whose collective wishes on such matters are generally respected by the Nominations Committee as a matter of protocol.

“I feel very strongly about it and our association, representing 967 homes, has sent a letter strongly questioning the desirability of confirming their appointment,” said Stan Wilson, secretary of the Homeland Association speaking to The Brew.

“I am 100% for getting and keeping business in Baltimore City, but those businesses should be grossly considered good businesses. . . This current board does not seem to feel the same way, and as such, should not be confirmed,” wrote Kevin Bernhard, of Highlandtown, in a letter to Ferguson.

Resolve Weakening?

Meanwhile, local liquor interests, the commissioners’ allies and Hogan’s office have been pushing back on the city senators, pressing them to confirm.

“There is definitely lobbying happening,” Ferguson said last night.

Ferguson, who says he has “real reservations” about whether the commissioners should be confirmed, wouldn’t comment on rumors that some of his fellow city senators are backing down.

“We have heard that Gov. Hogan’s office is putting pressure on the senators to confirm Hogan’s Liquor Board appointees, and the senators’ resolve to oppose confirmation may be weakening,” wrote Community Law Center staff attorney Rebecca Lundberg Witt, in a recent email to community leaders marked “URGENT.”

Are city senators who sit on the nominations committee being lobbied especially hard?

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-40th), who is running for mayor, did not return a call to her Annapolis office.  Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-43rd) said she has been approached on the issue, but only by community groups in her district that oppose the commissioners.

“I always had reservations about these commissioners,” Conway said, citing excessive extensions for license transfers as one problem. “They keep extending out the time [for extensions], four or five times.”

Conway said she was asked to meet with the commissioners, but declined. “I’m too busy to see people constantly,” she told The Brew.

“We’re Not Going Out on the Street”

Since taking over the agency, the new commissioners have said they would move more slowly than their predecessors led by retired judge Thomas Ward, who was appointed by Hogan’s Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley.

What critics call a pro- business tilt, they call restoring balance. In a recent meeting in East Baltimore, Trotter told community leaders they have unfair expectations of the agency.

“We can’t go out and be what I call enforcement. . . like the police and investigate activities unless we’re notified,” he said. “We’re not going out on the street! I’m not going to have round-the-clock [inspection] operations until 3 o’clock in the morning!”

Trotter also said the agency is constrained by the magnitude of its mission and needs more cooperation from those making complaints of liquor law violations.

“We have 8 to 10 inspectors, okay? To cover 1,300 licenses,” he said. “The only thing we can do is rely on the community, okay? To give us feedback.”

That feedback from the Homeland Association is largely negative, according to Wilson. He said his community was pleased with the Ward board’s action to permanently close a rowdy student bar on York Road known as Favorites.

Stadium Lounge Case

By comparison, he said, he found the new board’s action in reopening the Stadium Lounge in Waverly two months into a six month-suspension (imposed by the the previous board) highly inappropriate.

“That the commissioners acted unilaterally, in a non-public setting, was absolutely bizarre,” he said.

Wilson said community leaders are also upset that CLC attorney Becky Witt, who blogs regularly about the weekly Liquor Board meetings that she attends faithfully, was not included on the new board’s rules rewrite committee.

“Instead it was stacked with liquor industry people,” he said.

In his critical letter to the Nominations Committee, Matthew C. Gonter, of Patterson Park, cited the approval of “zombie licenses,” their refusal to recognize an MOU signed by a community association and other issues.

Ferguson said that although the Committee is not required to hold a hearing to let the commissioners respond to the criticism, the panel may do so.

He noted that a new legislative audit of the board is being completed, updating a scathing 2013 legislative audit that highlighted poor record-keeping, staff issues and other problems.

“I am disappointed at the [slow] speed at which transparency reforms are being implemented,” he said. “Hopefully things are better than they were in 2013.”

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