When the city announced last year a big initiative to eliminate blight via rewriting the zoning code to prohibit liquor establishments in residential areas, it set off a howl of opposition.
Instead of sweeping up non-problematic stores in the zoning dragnet, some have asked, why couldn’t the city enforce existing liquor laws better and go after the specific bad actors?
The answer under new Liquor Board Chairman Thomas Ward seems to be: they can.
At least, that was the message at the July 24 hearing of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners as a slew of violations came up, and Ward, along with fellow Commissioners Dana Moore and Harvey E. Jones, gave them no mercy.
As a prelude to their decisions, Ward allowed testimony about the general problem of nuisance bars from neighborhood leaders – including two from Park Heights where much of the zoning crackdown had been focused.
Take the case of M&M Discount Liquors at 5142 Park Heights Avenue. According to a police officer’s testimony, an under-aged cadet had been served a $7.65 bottle of Bacardi Gold and was not asked for ID.
Middleton and Colon Speak
“That particular store was closed several times for violations and has had a lot of negative history,” said City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton in the lively and detailed account of the meeting posted by Community Law Center blogger Rebecca Lundberg Witt.
Chiming in with more general testimony, Julius “Julio” Colon, president and CEO of Park Heights Renaissance, complained that there has been constant crime, drug trafficking, hanging out and loitering in front of the Park Heights liquor stores.
“Objection!” said licensee’s attorney Peter Prevas, arguing that such general complaints are not relevant to a hearing on one specific violation.
Noting that the police cadet had been subpoenaed but was not at the hearing, Prevas moved to strike the officer’s testimony about the Bacardi purchase, saying, “Hearsay is not admissible if there is a subpoena for the witness.”
Not pausing for a moment, Ward replied, “That’s very interesting law that you just quoted. I’ve never heard it before. Overruled,” according to Witt’s account.
Fines Not a Deterrence?
It was just one of a whole series of violations cases in which Ward allowed Colon and Middleton to testify. “I am listening as a courtesy to community representatives coming in to tell us about problems,” Ward explained. “We’re not applying it to the case at this time.”
Witt’s post on Booze News captures the tenor of the dialogue around violations that day, particularly in another case involving an underage drinking allegation at Park Lane Cut Rate Liquors at 4416 Park Heights Avenue:
Colon suggested, “Maybe we should think about increasing the penalty” for minors. Middleton added that there have been three shootings recently in the shopping center where the license is located. Commissioner Moore agreed with Mr. Colon that the Board may need to revisit the fines imposed for violations. She noted that the standard $500 fine does not seem to be a deterrent to licensees.
Witt includes some even more pointed testimony aimed at the previous Liquor Board by another community member in the case of New Smiling Liquors, 2701 Hugo Avenue. (It was another under-age liquor sale allegation.)
There Was no Support Before
Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corporation (CHUM), testified that he was before the Board as a favor to Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
Witt quoted and paraphrased Washington’s remarks at length:
He said, “I will be honest, I did not want to attend this hearing. The business does operate in a vacuum in the least populated block in our community.”
He said that there is significant violence, “countless shootings, a number of murders, two of which have occurred inside the premises. We found absolutely no support or cooperation from the previous board. I felt that this would be another fruitless endeavor.”
There are broken bottles around the building. The Northeast Police District has tired of community members calling about the issue, and they have thrown their hands up in frustration. He said that this particular business has had a history of negligence; they have violated the public trust and their privilege to operate a liquor license.
He said that the community had had the licensee’s other store shut down, and since the other store closed, the drug activity on corner, trash, and debris have subsided.
He asked, “How is an establishment allowed to operate in a vacuum, with no regard for the community?” He said that the licensee has capitalized and profited and has shown “not only neglect but disrespect.”
The licensee was found responsible and fined $500.
After the Board gave its decision, Ward addressed the licensee, saying: “Let me say this to you, sir. I haven’t penalized you for all of the various things [that Mr. Washington alleged]. But I’m telling you, I’ve instructed my Executive Secretary to go out and check everything. The law is that you’re responsible for the conduct of your customers. So you know what’s coming.”