Confronting mounting protests by Baltimore residents, lawmakers and a watchdog community advocacy group, the Republican governor’s three nominees on the Liquor Board will face questioning and a confirmation vote by a Senate committee on Monday.
“The Senate Executive Nominations Committee will be deciding on the Baltimore City Liquor Board on Monday, February 29th,” according to Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-46h), reached in Annapolis last night.
Meanwhile, Liquor Board Chairman Benjamin A. Neil has mounted a vigorous counter-offensive, with a letter to the nominations committee defending the agency and a Baltimore Sun op-ed attacking his chief critic, the non-profit Community Law Center, as “not objective.”
Neil complained that he and fellow commissioners Douglas E. Trotter and Elizabeth A. Hafey, appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan last summer, “have been subjected to an unprecedented campaign of criticism and misinformation.”
Community leaders grappling with nuisance taverns and liquor stores, along with the Community Law Center attorneys who advocate on their behalf, say the board under Neil has been flouting state liquor law, reversing previous board actions without cause and overly favoring the liquor industry.
Taking their seats on the board through a “recess appointment,” the commissioners’ terms will expire unless they are confirmed by the state Senate before the end of the 90-day legislative session.
Typically, such appointments are confirmed without fanfare, but city senators say they have heard so much criticism that before taking action they want to bring the appointees in to testify along with other witnesses.
Monday’s hearing will bring into one room all the parties embroiled in this increasingly contentious battle over the long-troubled agency. That includes CLC staff attorney Rebecca Lundberg Witt, who is also scheduled to testify.
The CLC, which has represented community associations on liquor-related issues for years, has been actively lobbying against confirmation of the commissioners, saying their actions hurt neighborhoods.
One point of contention is the new set of agency rules and regulations, drawn up under Neil by a committee dominated by licensees and the lawyers, which critics say overly favored liquor interests.
Since approving the new rules, the commissioners and agency staff have begun holding community meetings to explain their actions and to listen and respond to neighborhood concerns.
We’re Addressing Problems
Neil, in his op-ed, says the Liquor Board has been working on many of the issues cited by critics.
He said the agency was “a mess” when he took over from the former chairman, Thomas Ward, a Gov. Martin O’Malley appointee, but he has moved it forward with various reforms.
The reforms he cites include creating a smaller but more efficient inspection staff and developing a plan called “Momentum 1933” to automate procedures and put licensees’ paperwork online for public review.
(The name is a reference to the year that Prohibition was repealed.)
The agency is also trying to create a tablet-based inspection system to allow monitoring of inspectors’ activities “through GPS and time stamping,” Neil wrote.
But the liquor board chairman complained that “it has taken months for us to get the city information technology office to approve this much needed change.”