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by Fern Shen3:00 pmJul 11, 20160

Liquor Board rescinds policy barring written testimony

Commissioners acknowledge the previous order caused “legitimate concern” and “confusion”

Above: Residents wishing to have their testimony about liquor licensees considered will, once again, be able to submit it in writing. (Fern Shen)

In the wake of controversy over a decree by the new chairman of the Liquor Board prohibiting written testimony from being submitted into the record, the agency rescinded the policy late on Friday.

“Given the legitimate concerns expressed by the public over its issuance, we are rescinding Administrative Decision #7,” said the memo, essentially canceling the policy that chairman Albert J. Matricciani, Jr. has issued on the previous Friday.

Administrative decision #7 had announced that “any individual who wishes to present testimony as part of the evidentiary record for consideration by the Board in its decision concerning a matter in which a public hearing is held, shall be present at the public hearing so that his or her testimony will be presented in person, under oath, and on the record.”

It’s a common practice across the country for legislative and administrative boards, commissions and committees to accept written testimony.

In Baltimore, community leaders, a state senator and others had expressed concern that the new policy would impose a hardship on citizens unable to attend the Liquor Board’s daytime hearings because of childcare issues, work schedules, etc.

The board’s new memo sought to reassure them. “The board will accept written documentation from parties, which may be considered, if relevant and credible, by the board in its decision making,” the memo, posted on the agency’s website, said.

It was signed by commissioners Dana Petersen Moore and Aaron J. Greenfield as well as Matricciani.

The memo also affirmed that the public could still communicate with agency staff.

Chairman’s Defense

Administrative Decision #7 had made no reference to off-the-record ex parte communications with commissioners, which have long been considered inappropriate, but Friday’s memo said that had been its intent.

The board’s decision had been intended “to enhance the transparency and fairness of its decision-making authority,” the memo began.

But some residents had seen in the rule just the opposite.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Baltimore City Government hates its residents,” wrote a commenter on the Baltimore voters Facebook page.

“Being able to testify/petition in writing is an essential component in a democracy. This board has the power to take such an authoritarian stance?” Nina Therese Kasniunas, a professor of political science at Goucher College, wrote on online.

“So what, we’re supposed to get time off work with little to no notice to tell the liquor board how their decisions affect us? I’m sure my boss would totally go for that,” another said, reacting on Facebook.

Watchdog attorney Rebecca Lundberg Witt, who blogs about liquor issues for the Community Law Center, questioned Matricciani’s authority to issue administrative orders, essentially upending the panel’s Rules and Regulation process.

But Friday’s memo defended the orders, saying Valentine v. Board of License Commr’s held that “liquor boards are not state agencies within the context of the Maryland Administrative Procedure Act and they are not subject to the State Documents Law with respect to their promulgation of rules and regulations.”

The commissioners will be “revisiting” the matter, the memo promised.

“Because the Administrative Decision was issued without further explanation, it caused unnecessary concern and some confusion among those potentially affected,” the memo said. “Consequently, the board has decided to rescind the Administrative Decision and rework it with greater clarity.”

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