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Liquor Issues

Commentaryby Fern Shen4:25 pmMar 18, 20160

There’s politics, but also reform, behind the Liquor Board fight in Annapolis

Years of complaints about patronage, favoritism and dysfunction have dogged liquor regulation in Baltimore regardless of which party occupies the Governor’s Mansion

Above: Baltimore Liquor Commissioner Douglas Trotter defends the Liquor Board recently at a Senate committee hearing. (Fern Shen)

For the first time since it was created following the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners is facing a major structural change.

Under legislation pending in Annapolis, the three-member board would no longer be appointed by the governor, but by the mayor and city council.

It remains unclear, however, whether this shift to a system of city appointees, as opposed to state appointees, would result in the kind of substantive changes sought by those behind the measure.

For years, community leaders and two successive legislative audits have strongly criticized the board as patronage-ridden, dysfunctional and dominated by liquor interests.

Those complaints have greatly intensified under the trio named last year by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The three appointees (Benjamin A. Neil, Douglas H. Trotter and Elizabeth A. Hafey) are now in limbo, with legislators saying they will not be confirmed.

But critiques about bias and corruption at the Liquor Board have persisted whether the occupant of the Governor’s Mansion was a Democrat or a Republican.

It was a Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, who appointed chairman, Stephan W. Fogelman, during whose tenure community critics and the auditors gave the Board low marks.

And it was that same governor who appointed the next chairman, the late Thomas Ward, under whose leadership the board was applauded by neighborhood activists as more responsive to the community.

Only Through 2018

Under Senate Bill 1159 (approved by the Senate yesterday, with the House of Delegates’ version still pending), the mayor and city council would be required to select the commissioners if Hogan does not appoint new members by the end of the legislative session on April 11.

If the power to appoint the commissioners is stripped from the governor, the change would only continue through 2018, the end of Hogan’s term.

This would not be unprecedented. Over the years, some other jurisdictions have wrested liquor regulation power away from the governor.

In Montgomery County, for instance, the county council and county executive appoint commissioners and members of the Alcoholic Beverages Advisory Board. In Howard County, there’s a hearing board with representatives from each of the council districts. Council member pick three nominees  for their district and the county executive gets to choose one.

But its likely that none of these jurisdictions has ever altered the appointment rules for a single gubernatorial term.

Advocates of the bill would say there’s good reason for an urgent solution, with the possibility looming of there being no sitting commissioners during the upcoming license renewal period.

Party Politics?

Given the swirl of other dynamics at play, it would be tempting for observers to dismiss the confirmation battle as a classic Annapolis spat.

There’s party politics – a Republican governor pitted against a Democrat-controlled legislature – and lingering city-state tension amid the cancellation of the Red Line light-rail project, reductions in state education aid, and other sore issues.

There are even arguably personal issues at play, given that the lead sponsor of the legislation to strip appointment power from the governor is Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-43rd). Former Liquor Commissioner Harvey Jones is the campaign treasurer for Conway, whose husband as a retired city liquor inspector.

Jones, who had been named as an alternate member of the Hogan-appointed board, has become something of a political football in the fight.

Earlier this month, Hogan withdrew Jones as an “alternate” on the board, a position that, as is the case of the three commissioners, is paid.

Critics Across Party Lines

But there are real issues being raised by Liquor Board critics, who seem to cross race, class and party lines in Baltimore. That cross-section was evident at the board’s February 17 Town Hall-style meeting held near Pimlico.

Among those who spoke with passion that night were Chrissy Anderson, a white Republican from Fells Point, and Ronald Anthony Mills, an African-American who is vice president of Park Heights Renaissance.

John Banks, a Howard Park resident, said the board has ignored years of complaints about a nuisance tavern he and his predominately black neighbors contend is a 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. cheap liquor store – and a magnet for violence, litter and drug dealing not far from an elementary school.

Banks and others blasted the agency for failing to crack down on the establishment because it is not maintaining an area to serve patrons on the premises, a requirement of their license.

“We are injured by that. Our young people are dying on that corner because of that, and it needs to be stopped,” Banks said.

Several speakers said the Liquor Board, after becoming more community-friendly under Ward, had returned to its old ways. A prime example they cite is the re-opening of the Stadium Lounge, a Waverly tavern ordered closed by the previous board for gambling and other violations.

They also cite the board’s recently-completed rules rewrite process that was dominated by licensees and their attorneys, one of whom chaired the committee that revised the rules.

Also in attendance was Community Law Center staff attorney Rebecca Lundberg Witt, who monitors liquor issues for the non-profit community advocacy group. She didn’t speak on February 17 but, with her group leading the charge to unseat the current licensees, she addressed the recent Senate appointments committee in Annapolis.

“Over and over again, this set of commissioners has shown the community that they either don’t know what the law says or don’t care to apply it,” Witt said, submitting documentation of her claim.

Defending their performance, the commissioners said they are judging each case on the merits, that they have improved the efficiency of inspections, and that they are doing the best they can with limited staff and authority.

Liquor Board Chairman Neil, who submitted his own documentation in his board’s defense, put it this way: “I am actually proud of the work we have done.”

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