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Liquor Issues

Business & Developmentby Fern Shen12:52 pmMar 23, 20160

Would taverns with pending protests have to close without liquor commissioners to rule on them?

With Gov. Hogan’s liquor commissioners rejected by the legislature, and a possible lag before replacements come in, there could be some problems.

Above: Stadium Lounge had its license suspended last year by the previous Liquor Board. (Fern Shen)

Maryland Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-43rd) reassured a questioner last week who was worried about a possible unintended consequence of the vote her committee had just taken to reject Gov. Larry Hogan’s nominees to the Baltimore Liquor Board.

Could liquor licenses, valid by law through April 30, 2016, expire if there is a lag period in which there are no commissioners in place to renew them?

“No, that’s an administrative function,” Conway said, correctly noting that the Liquor Board’s staff processes the applications that licensees file every year in order to stay valid.

But there’s a possible hitch.

Residents and property-owners who object to an establishment are allowed to file a so-called “protest of renewal” against its license. That’s something only the commissioners can rule on. And the commissioners are required to do so in April, with a notice period required before a hearing can be held.

So with hypothetically no commissioners available to rule on citizen protests next month, would that invalidate the licenses for some taverns, bars, liquor stores or restaurants?

And if that were the case, would the establishment have to shut down until three new commissioners were seated and they ruled on the protest of renewal?

“That’s a very good question,” Liquor Board executive secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth told The Brew. “That’s a question I’m going to be asking the Attorney General’s office. That puzzles me.”

Commissioners Rejected

Whether the scenario plays out that way – including a gap period in which there are no city liquor commissioners – is unclear.

Legal interpretations and political negotiations are simmering away, as lawmakers and Hogan wrangle over the appointments in the waning days of the 2016 legislative session. It’s the latest battleground in a months-long war between stakeholders in the matter of city liquor regulation.

Community associations, individual residents and the Community Law Center have been lobbying against the current appointees: Chairman Benjamin A. Neil and commissioners Douglas H. Trotter and Elizabeth E. Hafey.

Critics of the board say it has been biased in favor of liquor interests, failed to follow state liquor laws and acted improperly to restore a suspended license. The commissioners’ defenders have said they are learning on the job and doing their best to rule fairly .

The commissioners appear, however, to be on their way out.

Acting on Conway’s motion on Friday, the Senate’s Executive Nominations Committee voted against recommending their names to the governor.

Not present for that 13-2 vote was Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-40). A spokesman for Pugh, who is running for mayor in the Democratic primary, said she could not be in Annapolis for the vote because of two events she was attending in Baltimore.

Gov. Hogan, meanwhile, has said he considers his appointees qualified and will not appoint others. (Attempts to hammer out a compromise with the governor’s office had broken down, Conway said Friday. “We got nowhere,” she said.)

Meanwhile, Conway’s bill to change how liquor board members are appointed moved through the Democrat-controlled legislature with ease.

The bill, which gives appointment power to the Mayor and City Council, received final approval in the House of Delegates today and now goes to the governor’s desk.

Under the provisions of the bill, Hogan is stripped of his power to name board members if he doesn’t send nominees to the Senate that it finds acceptable by midnight April 11, when the General Assembly adjourns for the year.

Opportunity for Protests

As for how the Attorney General’s office will rule on the question of protested licenses, the Community Law Center’s Rebecca Lundberg Witt said she thinks the law is clear.

“I don’t know why the Attorney General needs to be consulted,” she said. “A license by way of renewal may not be approved without a hearing before such official if a protest has been filed against the granting of the new license at least 30 days before the expiration of the license for which renewal is sought,” she said, quoting from Article 2B, the state liquor law.

In an email, she put it this way:

“A license may NOT be approved without a hearing, if the protest has been filed. It’s not complicated. No commissioners –> no hearing –> no renewal.”

Witt said she’s urging community members considering one to get their protest applications against troublesome establishments to the board before the March 31 deadline.

If the unusual administrative issues of 2016 mean that it takes a while to appoint new commissioners, she said, the result in some cases “could be a de-facto mini-suspension” of licenses.

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