Sources say reforms are being made to the Baltimore City Liquor Board, from within, from above and from outside.
First, from within: In recent weeks, Liquor License Commissioner Elizabeth Smith has been visiting community associations, including the Fell’s Prospect Community Association and the Fell’s Point Community Association. She has been seeking community input, she says, and also updating the community on changes being made to the Liquor Board, which is controlled by the state and self-funded.
“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible,” Smith told the Guide.
Smith is one of three quasi-judicial commissioners appointed by the state to preside over and decide upon matters related to liquor licensing. If a liquor establishment is cited for violations, then the holder of the liquor license must appear before the board of three commissioners—Smith, Harvey Jones and Chair Stephan Fogleman—who may decide to reprimand the licensee, levy a fine, suspend the license or revoke the license.
The other arm of the Liquor Board includes the inspectors and administrative staff, such as the executive secretary and the deputy executive secretary. As Executive Secretary Samuel Daniels Jr. has resigned effective July 1, Assistant Executive Secretary Douglas Paige is heading the administrative arm for now.
Smith said that operating procedures are being standardized for the inspectors, who visit liquor establishments to confirm that regulations are being followed or to investigate citizen complaints. She said in an email that the Liquor Board is currently examining “best practices” in similar city inspections agencies, particularly Baltimore Housing’s Code Enforcement Division.
“We believe that best practices are existing in the city already,” wrote Smith in an email, “and we are interested in adapting them to remove waste or redundancy, increase productivity, and restore the public’s trust.”
In a past interview, Fogleman said that the inspectors performed duties based on “oral tradition” within the agency, rather than following concrete procedures. The audit itself cited inconsistent inspections practices as a problem in the agency, with inspectors visiting some liquor outlets multiple times and others not at all, among other issues.
Smith said that while only Fogleman, the chair, has authority over the day-to-day operations of the agency, he is sharing what he knows with herself and Jones.
“Currently, all members are sharing oversight responsibility with the Chairman, and I have personally taken great interest with communicating our intent with neighborhoods across Baltimore City,” wrote Smith.
The commissioners now meet with Paige on a weekly basis, she added.
“Previously, we met quarterly to be briefed but have assumed more oversight and provide more input,” Smith wrote.
So far, some changes have been made. Immediately after the audit, the inspectors’ daily required visits increased from four to six. And effective July 1, Inspectors will be required to visit 10 locations per day, Smith said. Furthermore, the commissioners are looking into the cost and feasibility of acquiring hand-held equipment that scans liquor licenses and verifies that an inspection occurred.
“Our goal is to increase accountability of inspections with real-time data of performance and outcomes,” wrote Smith.
From outside, Christina Schoppert Devereaux, staff attorney for the Community Law Center, confirmed that about 14 individuals—both community leaders and private residents—have been meeting to address Liquor Board issues.
“Once we get our goals focused, we’ll reach out to more of the community—bar owners, politicians and health experts,” Schoppert Devereaux said.
The goal of the citizens’ group is to “reform the Liquor Board.”
“The first step would be to present a legislative package to respond to specific audit points,” she said. “These are issues that we’ve seen many, many times over the years, and now that they’re in the public view, it’s time to capitalize on that.”
On the side, Schoppert Devereaux is attending Liquor Board hearings and penning a watchdog blog, “Booze News: Distilled in Room 215,” online at communitylaw.org/programs/booze-news.
From above, State Senator Bill Ferguson (46th) has confirmed that the governor has ordered a task force, which includes members from the state legislature, to look into the audit’s findings and recommend a course of action.
by Erik Zygmont