The Baltimore City Liquor Board has hired a replacement for Liquor Board executive secretary Samuel Daniels Jr., who stepped down from the position last July.
Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, currently town manager of Capitol Heights in Prince George’s County, Md., takes over the reins of the Liquor Board’s administrative arm on June 1.
Bailey-Hedgepeth is the first woman in the history of the board to hold the position, and ostensibly the first executive secretary who didn’t get the job through political patronage.
“She’s the first outsider in the board’s 80-year history,” said Stephan Fogleman, former chair of the Liquor Board’s three-member commission responsible for quasi-judicial decisions.
Fogleman recently left for a judgeship on the city’s Orphans Court.
“For years, these were political patronage jobs,” Fogleman said of the Liquor Board’s administrative positions. “You had to know somebody. I don’t think she’s even met a Baltimore City Council member.”
According to Fogleman, Bailey-Hedgepeth was chosen because she had everything the board was looking for in a manager.
“She had experience with audits, with budget squeezes, and layoffs—all concerns that the board is dealing with now, or will address in the near future,” he said.
Before beginning her position in Capitol Heights, Bailey-Hedgepeth was the assistant to the city manager of the city of North Las Vegas. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Perdue University and more than 15 years of experience in city management.
One credential the new executive secretary lacks however, is a law degree–a qualification described as “highly preferred” in the agency’s own job description for the executive secretary position.
Becky Lundberg Witt, an attorney who maintains the blog Booze News for the Community Law Center, told the Baltimore Brew that a highly qualified executive secretary should have a law degree to “decipher the dense statutory language of Article 2B” [Maryland liquor laws].
In an email to the Guide, Witt said: “We were hoping for someone with a law degree, because the executive secretary does need to understand Article 2B, the section of Maryland state law that outlines alcohol regulation, as well as the case law interpreting Article 2B. But, of course, I’d be happy to answer any questions that she may have.”
Witt noted, however, that Bailey-Hedgepeth’s management experience could be an asset to the agency.
“The audit highlighted the complete failure of management of the agency–19 of 27 employees had no record of ever having had a performance evaluation, for example,” she said.
Witt said she’s optimistic about the new executive secretary.
State Senator Bill Ferguson, who represents the 46th District and was on the city delegation’s Liquor Board post-audit work group, doesn’t think a JD is essential.
“I am not at all concerned… The new Liquor Board reform law ensures that she has day-to-day access to the city’s law department for legal questions, and one of the three board commissioners will be required to be a lawyer under the new law,” Ferguson said.
The “new law” to which he refers is the Alcoholic Beverages Act of 2014, which passed through the General Assembly last month.
Brooke Lierman, a Fell’s Point attorney who has done work for the Community Law Center on revocations [La Raza in Highlandtown] and “zombie” liquor licenses and is running for state delegate for the 46th District, concurs.
“A smart and objective individual could thrive in the role of executive secretary without a law degree, as long as any legal decisions or questions were referred to commissioners or general counsel to the agency,” she said.
Bailey-Hedgepeth’s liquor-related experience includes three years as assistant to the city manager in Champaign, Ill, where she worked with the local liquor board.
She told the Guide she was drawn to the Baltimore City Liquor Board position for the challenges, which include implementing the reforms addressed in an audit released last year, as well as the new liquor legislation, which is purported to make the agency more modern, efficient, and accountable.
“Liquor issues are the same, whether in a smaller town or a large city. There are a lot of things I don’t know about the Liquor Board, but I have local government experience, and I know to expect the unexpected,” Bailey-Hedgepeth said.
One of the first tasks she’ll be charged with is, in accordance to the new liquor laws, coordinating the Liquor Board’s connection to Citistat, the city’s performance management system, which will make the agency’s progress, or lack of, public information.
Bailey-Hedgepeth joins the board a at time when the agency has been under particular scrutiny. In the last year alone, decisions by liquor commissioners have made front page news, and two recent license revocations were reversed.
Staff-wise, however, the last few years have been a comparatively stable time for the Liquor Board, whose checkered history is plagued by allegations of inefficiency and corruption among leadership.
In 1979, a Liquor Board commissioner and ex-state senator pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax charges, according to an Aug. 31, 1979, Sun story. He died in a boating accident while awaiting sentencing.
In 1999, the former chief liquor inspector and a state delegate pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to thwart enforcement of state liquor laws.” They were sentenced to probation and community service and each fined $1,000, according to a February 3, 1999, Sun story.
Bailey-Hedgepeth said her official start date is June 1, but she wants to begin working as soon as possible.
“I will probably be in the Liquor Board offices some time in late May,” she said.
Southeast residents already have suggestions for what should be her top priorities.
“I would like to see better scrutiny of the criminal backgrounds of liquor license applicants,” said Matt Gonter, who lives in the Patterson Park neighborhood.
He said he has no idea how the license holder of a now-defunct tavern in his community obtained a license in the first place.
“He was arrested for serving alcohol at his old restaurant without a [liquor ] license and [also] for selling booze (that he stole from a liquor store) while doing contracting work there—without a license,” Gonter recalled.
Edward Marcinko, who lives in Upper Fells Point, said he’s concerned with the way the board handles testimony and evidence in the case of petitions at Liquor Board hearings.
“Petitions, whether from bar owners or neighbors, are held to no standard of verification at all. A bar owner can present a petition with illegible addresses, nonexistent addresses, and so on, and the board will accept such a petition as perfectly legitimate. The board will give it the same weight as a hard-won neighborhood petition with bonafide signatures and addresses. The board needs to verify every signature against voter records,” Marcinko said.
Regarding license revocations, he added:
“The Liquor Board will do everything in its power to keep a Liquor license valid, despite the problems that the establishment has caused. If a license is revoked by the Liquor Board then please let the license die. Stop letting the owner of the license sell the license for a profit.”
The new executive secretary said she is aware of the issues neighborhoods with a high concentration of liquor licenses face.
“I’m a taxpayer. I see this from a citizens’ perspective,” said Bailey-Hedgepeth. “I mean, who are we [the Liquor Board] really responsible to here?”
Bailey-Hedgepeth,who lives in Original Northwood in northeast Baltimore, said she hopes to give city residents an opportunity to meet her and share their concerns in person.
“I want to be accessible. I want the citizens to know me,” she said.
by Danielle Sweeney