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Liquor Issues

Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen5:49 pmMar 25, 20160

Turmoil at the Liquor Board: Hearing canceled, top staffer fired

The executive secretary of the embattled board is ousted as the commissioners themselves face the prospect of a short term in office

Above: Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth at a meeting of the Baltimore Liquor Board’s rules rewrite committee last year. (Fern Shen)

The word went out to insiders via email today that next week’s regular Thursday Liquor Board meeting was canceled.

“Hearings scheduled for Thursday, March 31, 2016, have been postponed and will be rescheduled for a later date. Thank you,” wrote Liquor Board secretary Nadine E. Davis.

There was no further explanation.

Normally, Davis’ boss, Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, would be the person to ask for more details. Even amid contentious times at the agency,  the board’s administrative chief was always responsive and courteous to the public and media.

But Bailey-Hedgepeth is no longer serving as executive secretary. Sources say she was fired shortly after yesterday’s weekly meeting was concluded.

No one was answering the phone today (Good Friday) at the Liquor Board’s office at 231 East Baltimore Street, and Thomas Akras, deputy executive secretary, did not return an email requesting comment.

Liquor Board Chairman Benjamin A. Neil, contacted at his law office, did not return phone calls either.

With the precise reason for Bailey-Hedgepeth’s departure unclear, observers today were left to infer what they could from a video of yesterday’s meeting. It included some tense interactions between her and Neil.

At one point, a licensee didn’t show up, and Bailey-Hedgepeth didn’t have proof that the person was notified (“proof of service,” it is called).

It was clear from Neil’s and Commissioner Douglas H. Trotter’s remarks that they were not happy about it. “It shouldn’t be on the docket if there’s no service,” Neil said.

Hafey Says Goodbye

Bailey-Hedgepeth’s departure comes at what appears to be the waning days of Neil’s reign at the Liquor Board, which started less than a year ago.

The Maryland legislature has voted to reject Neil and his fellow commissioners, Trotter and Elizabeth E. Hafey.

Appointed on an interim basis by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the three appointees were viewed as biased towards licensees by critics, including the Community Law Center. Defenders of the board said they were being unfairly targeted.

Now barring an 11th-hour maneuver in Annapolis, Neil, Trotter and Hafey will be out as commissioners after April 11, the last day of the legislative session.

Meanwhile a bill passed by the legislature and awaiting Hogan’s signature would give Liquor Board appointment authority to Baltimore’s mayor and city council.

Recognizing that she may be a short timer (“it sounds like our term ends on April 11”), Hafey yesterday made some formal remarks at the conclusion of the hearing,  thanking staff and the fellow commissioners.

“It’s been an honor and a pleasure,” said Hafey, who explained that she had a schedule conflict and would not be able to attend the March 31 meeting.

“We’ve done some good and had some successes,” she said, citing the approval of new Liquor Board regulations and the streamlining of the inspector staff.

Witt Defends Bailey-Hedgepeth

Hafey’s remarks prompted a heated reaction from Community Law Center staff attorney Becky Lundberg Witt, who noted that the rules revision was required by law and that Bailey-Hedgepeth (along with Akras) “did 95% of the work on it.”

“I feel very frustrated that the commissioners have taken credit for so much of Michelle’s work while simultaneously dumping so much blame on her,” Witt told The Brew today, adding, “Trotter was present for no more than half of one of the nine [rule rewrite] meetings.”

Witt said she didn’t always agree with Bailey-Hedgepeth, but appreciated “that she was hired for a really tough job in April 2014.”

A highly critical 2013 legislative audit of the agency found, among other things, that inspectors did not meet their minimum daily inspections 83% of the time.

“The numbers in that chart are just astounding, honestly. How do you motivate people who are used to doing almost no work?” Witt asked.

Witt said Bailey-Hedgepeth got the staff to be more productive, “but also made up for their lack of work by taking way too much on herself. When I needed any simple question answered, I went to Michelle.”

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