State Senator Bill Ferguson (D-46th District) wants bars that lose their licenses to be required to stop selling alcohol immediately and remain “dry” for at least 45 days, before being allowed to request a stay on the Liquor Board’s decision. He recently sponsored Senate Bill 235 in Annapolis to accomplish this goal.
Ferguson, who lives in Highlandtown, says current laws makes liquor license revocation a toothless punishment.
As it stands, the one or two Baltimore bars that have their licenses revoked each year can appeal and immediately request a stay—or postponement—on the decision. If they do this, they can remain open for business until their appeal is heard by the Circuit Court.
“Typically, within three or four months,” said Liquor Board Deputy Executive Secretary Jane Schroeder.
In the meantime, it’s business as usual.
Ferguson says the impetus for sponsoring the legislation was his experience with La Raza Cantina, a bar at the corner of East and Eastern Avenues.
La Raza’s liquor license was revoked by the city’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners in December.
Highlandtown and Canton residents who live near the bar had petitioned the Liquor Board to revoke La Raza’s license because, they claimed, the goings-on at and around the bar made the neighborhood feel unsafe. A double stabbing and numerous calls to the police were referenced in the petition, which was signed by 137 residents.
La Raza had previously had its license suspended by the Liquor Board for three weeks in April of 2012.
At the end of the December hearing, Ferguson recalls, “I heard the board chairman say, ‘We’re revoking the license effective immediately,’ but it wasn’t immediately.”
“La Raza appealed. They were granted a stay and were open for business the next, if not the same, day,” Ferguson said.
Local residents who petitioned the board, while technically victorious, felt the outcome was unfair.
“With the establishment being able to re-open as soon as their appeal has been filed, it effectively takes the most severe penalty that the Liquor Board can give, and turns it into a slap on the wrist,” said Kevin Bernhard, president of the Highlandtown Community Association. “It is unfair to the community that has fought so hard to make their neighborhood better.”
Ferguson agreed and decided to pursue a legislative remedy.
The bill is being proposed at the state level because the Baltimore City Liquor Board—like all liquor boards—is a state entity.
Ferguson said the mandatory 45-day halt to booze sales before a stay can be requested would make the revocation a “tangible penalty.”
Under the proposed legislation, such bars would not have to close completely for the 45 days. They could conceivably sell food or soda or other non-alcohol items.
“But problem bars…that’s where they make their money, selling alcohol,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the hearing for Senate Bill 235 was last Thursday. He acknowledged there was some opposition from the state’s licensed beverage lobby.
“They thought the 45-day penalty was too harsh a punishment,” he said. “They thought it could put these bars out of business.”
by Danielle Sweeney