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Liquor Issues

Neighborhoodsby Mark Reutter3:15 pmApr 28, 20160

The new Liquor Board pledges fairness after a tumultuous past

At a brisk, focused hearing, three new commissioners lay the groundwork for a less troubled agency

Above: Liquor Commissioner Dana Moore with Chairman Albert Matricciani and Commissioner Aaron Greenfield. (Mark Reutter)

Appearing today at a public hearing less than 24 hours after they were sworn in, the Liquor Board’s three new commissioners pledged to drop an anchor of stability at an agency that’s been drowning in dysfunction.

In the last month alone, the liquor board has laid idle as the trio of commissioners appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan was terminated by the Maryland Senate, the executive secretary was summarily dismissed by the departing board, and anonymous allegations resurfaced of “no-show” inspectors paid generous wages.

Such turmoil followed nine months of complaints by neighborhood groups and the Community Law Center that the Hogan-appointed board was violating established law while favoring tavern licensees.

Under a process hammered out by the legislature, the new commissioners were appointed by the city – Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young – with the behind-the-scenes consent of state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who engineered the termination of the previous commissioners.

Promises of a New Era

Suggesting that the agency’s past won’t be its future, the new commissioners expressed confidence that they will be able to administer state liquor laws without fear or favor. 

“What the three of us share in common is the desire to conduct these hearings expeditiously, and do it with fairness and due process for all parties,” said Albert J Matricciani, a retired state judge who was named chairman of the board.

“As I was saying about a year ago, I am very happy to be on the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners,” added Dana Peterson Moore, who was ousted from the board last year when Gov. Hogan made his surprise appointments of Benjamin Neil, Douglas Trotter and Elizabeth Hafey.

“I, too, am honored and thankful for the Council president to appoint me to this position and am very excited to work with my colleagues and the staff,” said Annapolis lawyer Aaron Greenfield. (Greenfield was appointed by City Council President Young, while Mayor Rawlings-Blake named Matricciani and Moore.)

Protest Hearings Scheduled

Today’s order of business was to handle a backlog of “protest of renewal” cases that, by law, must be heard by April 30. Rather than rush through the cases today, Matricciani asked each party to agree to a full hearing on either May 19 or June 2.

The seven taverns subject to renewal protests include two that have a history of community complaints – the Stadium Lounge in Waverly and the 4 G’s Liquor & Lounge in Howard Park.

Both cases will be heard on May 19. The board will also hear protests against Club 347 on North Calvert Street, Half Mile Track in Irvington, The Drinkery in Mount Vernon, A-One Convenience Store on Wilkens Avenue, and WC Harlan on West 23rd Street in Remington.

Becky Lundberg Witt, the Community Law Center lawyer who writes a blog about the liquor board, said she was pleased the commissioners did not try to hear the protests before they had a chance to study the 300 pages of state law regulating alcoholic beverages and tobacco.

“There’s no time for a learning curve, so I will assume that the commissioners will use the time between now and their first hearing on May 19 to study the liquor statutes and case law carefully,” she said.

Witt said she has “heard only good things” about the character and intelligence of the new commissioners, “so I am very optimistic about the future of the board.”

Being “community friendly” or “business friendly” is not the issue that should govern the actions of the board, she said. What matters is the “fair and consistent application of the law” and the ability of the board to explain its decisions “in a way that everyone can understand.”

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