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Liquor Issues

by Fern Shen10:31 amDec 2, 20140

At Liquor Board, more leadership change amid lingering problems

A chief inspector and deputy executive secretary are hired at an agency still making zombies and clerical errors

Above: Shelton Jones, the veteran Baltimore Police vice cop hired by the Liquor Board, at a July hearing.

Recent mid-level staff hires are changing the face of the long-troubled Baltimore Liquor Board, though the problems highlighted in last year’s critical audit of the agency continue to pop up.

A former Baltimore vice cop was hired to fill the $72,657-a-year chief inspector position – a move the Board of Estimates approved last week amid some controversy – and a new deputy was hired to assist executive secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth.

As the spending board approved the hiring of 22-year police veteran Shelton Jones – allowing him to keep his city pension despite an objection from Comptroller Joan M. Pratt – the mayor characterized the move as a gesture of reform.

Calling Jones’ hiring as chief inspector “thinking outside the box,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that this new hire and other changes at the agency “are bringing credibility to the work of the Liquor Board.”

Testifying before the Board of Estimates, Bailey-Hedgepeth said Jones would be working in the field, as well as serving as an administrator supervising other inspectors. She cited specific audit findings – numbers 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15 – that Jones would be expected to help correct.

Pratt objected, saying that, by permitting Jones to keep his police pension, the Board was waiving city rules against allowing a city employee to take a second government job, so-called “double-dipping.”

Bailey-Hedgepeth argued that it was worth it to make an exception for Jones, whom she called the most qualified of 55 candidates.

In the end, the Board of Estimates approved Jones’ hiring by a vote of 3-1, with Pratt voting “no”and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young abstaining.

New Deputy

Bailey-Hedgepeth also announced the appointment of  a former assistant city state’s attorney, Thomas R. Akras, as deputy executive secretary to the Liquor Board.

Akras worked in the city Department of Housing and Community Development prosecuting code violations and before that, starting in 2010, was a city state’s attorney assigned to the District Court Division.

Akras, who will be charged with overseeing the violations docket, would also help the Board move ahead with reforms, Bailey-Hedgepeth said.

“Over the next few weeks, we will be bringing forward a schedule of items to the board for review – the computer upgrades, rules re-write and other pressing tasks,” she told The Brew.

Bailey-Hedgepeth said Akras will help her advance the rules re-write process, which is mandated by the state legislature.

“This will lay out a time-line for the committee and new meeting dates,” she said. “Over the next few weeks we will be preparing for the state audit committee responses.”

Homing Pigeon Club Gets a Break

Meanwhile,  weekly Liquor Board proceedings continue with a mixed-bag of actions, including denying the Latin Palace’s request for the restrictions on live entertainment to be lifted and fining Carolina Tex-Mex, also in Fells Point, $250 for not cooperating with an inspector.

But some of the board’s actions showed they are still running afoul of the audit, according to the Community Law Center.

At the November 6 meeting, for example, the commissioners approved a hardship extension for the Hamilton Homing Pigeon Club, at 4810 Gunther Avenue, which didn’t have to lift a finger to make a case for why it needed one, according to Rebecca Witt, writing for the Law Center’s “Booze News” blog.

The law states that the board can extend a shuttered entity’s license for up to 360 days “on a finding that undue hardship currently exists causing the closing or cessation of business operations.”

“The board did not hear any evidence about any hardship at all, due or undue, and the Commissioners did not hear anything to suggest that such hardship caused the establishment to close,” Witt wrote. “The board is continuing a policy begun by previous Boards of approving ‘undue hardship’ extensions with no explanation of any hardship at all.”

Another hardship extension for a shut-down establishment went to Club Thunderbird, at 2201 East Chase Street, which was last open on April 30, 2014.

According to Witt, club’s licensee failed to submit a written request to reopen within 180 days of disuse. That meant that his license had already expired by law.

“The board breathed new life into a license that had expired, creating a new ‘zombie license,’” Witt wrote.

Problems at the Office

But Witt’s entry also makes clear why the commissioners gave Club Thunderbird a break – their own errors. The panel had given the bar’s owner and operator, James Player, incorrect information when he had called to tell them he had been hospitalized, had tax problems and needed an extension, according to Witt.

Commissioner Dana Petersen Moore told Player “that the board was making this decision based on their understanding of the failures of their own office,” Witt wrote.

“A former employee had put hardship extension requests in the file and had never acted on them; he had also given out incorrect advice to licensees and not followed through when he was supposed to,” Witt wrote.

As the commissioners went off the record, according to Witt, Moore said to Bailey-Hedgepeth, “We need to look [and] see what else is out there.”

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