A blog about the Baltimore City Liquor Board
Liquor Board Community Outreach Recap: February 17, 2016
Written by Becky Witt
The Board of Liquor License Commissioners held their second community meeting on February 17, 2016, from 7-8pm. The agency was represented by Executive Secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, Deputy Executive Secretary Thomas Akras, Acting Chief Inspector John Howard, and Commissioner Elizabeth Hafey.
Bailey-Hedgepeth began the agenda by introducing herself and the other Liquor Board staff present. She went through a handout containing PowerPoint slides (click here to view). She described recent changes at the agency over the past two years, including staff and commissioner turnover. She included an organizational chart of the current employees of the agency. She briefly described how to make a 311 complaint and the process through which a complaint may become a charge of a violation against the licensee. She mentioned the protest of renewal process, in which communities can protest the annual renewal of a given license in March and April of each year.
[If you’re interested in protesting a liquor license: check out our Bar Bad Bars workshop, coming up on Wednesday, March 2, 2016!]
Commissioner Elizabeth Hafey then introduced herself to the audience as an associate at Miles and Stockbridge who does products liability and medical malpractice defense. Before she went to law school, she was a probation officer. She closed her brief remarks by saying that she was happy to be at the meeting, because it’s important that the community and the commissioners have dialogue and that the Liquor Board staff is there to listen to concerns. She said that she takes community complaints seriously, and she wants everyone to feel heard. Before each set of hearings on Thursdays, she said that she reads the docket and the law fully.
At that point, the floor was opened up for community questions.
Several Howard Park community members brought up a Class BD-7 (6am-2am, 7-day) tavern called “4G’s,” which, they said, is “holding the neighborhood hostage.” Howard Park had attempted, they said, to protest the renewal of the license ten years ago, and the Board had ruled in favor of renewal. The community members said that the bar is open 24 hours a day (which, if true, would be illegal), and it claims to have an accessible lounge area, but it is filled with dust. One woman said that she is frustrated that the community cannot get any help, and their property values are going down. They believe that the Liquor Board is in the pocket of the licensees and is not for the people of Howard Park. Individuals expressed concerns about violent crime, including a shooting in front of a liquor store at “high noon on a Sunday morning.”
One resident asked how the Liquor Board expects records to be kept for a BD-7 tavern business whose property is divided into separate liquor store and lounge areas. Deputy Executive Secretary Tom Akras replied that Article 2B does not require the business to keep their records in any particular way (i.e., separated out). He remarked that the Liquor Board requires BD-7 tavern businesses to keep their lounge/on-premises consumption area open whenever their package goods section is open, and Akras said that they have issued violations for that rule in the past.
[Fact Check #1: The Liquor Board has a different definition of “open and operating” than most people have. If a licensee agrees to buzz a patron through a locked door upon that patron’s specific request, the Board considers that to be an “open and operating” tavern. This unusual and counterintuitive definition of “open” was not made clear during the meeting.]
[Fact Check #2: The Liquor Board is required by state law to “adopt regulations to determine the manner of operation” of a BD-7 licensee. This means that, as long as their regulations don’t conflict with state law, the Liquor Board has the authority to tell BD-7s how they may operate. This could include requiring that the businesses keep receipts for inspection in a certain way. Mr. Akras stated that Article 2B does not require receipts; this is true, however, it is also misleading, because the Board has the authority to issue regulations to require more from its BD-7 licensees and has chosen not to do so.]
A board member of the Garrison Hill Community Association asked Tom about his statement that he was “aware” of 4Gs; she asked why the Board had not done anything about it and whether the outreach meeting was just to appease the residents and keep them quiet. She expressed frustration at the turnover at various agencies: sometimes they start working with someone at an agency and then that person leaves. She concluded by asking why it is okay for all of these liquor stores to be located in neighborhoods of people who look like her, and it’s not right. She said, “we work hard trying to keep our neighborhoods nice.” Another woman nearby said, “black neighborhoods matter.”
Liquor Board Inspector John Howard responded that he lives in the neighborhood near 4G’s. People responded, “help us, help us.” He said that when the Liquor Board inspectors did investigations of the store, they were buzzed into the lounge area upon request, which, Mr. Howard says, is all that the Liquor Board can ask for. He suggested that the community members call 311, because if they’re just talking among themselves about issues, the Liquor Board can’t do anything to address them. Several community members responded by saying that they called 311 numerous times over the years, and it didn’t do any good.
[Fact Check #3: Mr. Howard is incorrect that the only thing that the Liquor Board can do is ask that the licensee let customers into the tavern. See Fact Check #2, above. To the contrary, the agency had every opportunity to update its rules and regulations to demand more from BD-7 taverns. After hours of discussion, including passionate defenses of the status quo from both Bailey-Hedgepeth and Akras, the committee voted to keep the BD-7 regulations essentially the same as they were in 1998.]
Another resident said that she watches the Liquor Board hearings from home, and she thinks that the fines are a joke. She said that she’s seen $250 fines and the highest one she has heard was $500. Licensees can make $500 in an hour, she said. They pay their attorney more than they pay to the Liquor Board, and it’s “highway robbery.” She finds it offensive that if she doesn’t cut her grass, her citation is more than the Liquor Board’s fines.
A community member asked how the agency monitors the on-site consumption requirement in Article 2B. Mr. Akras responded that there is no requirement that the licensee keep receipts that show on-site and off-site sales.
[Fact Check #4: There is no requirement that the licensee keep receipts, but the Liquor Board has within its authority the ability to regulate the operations of BD-7 licensees. Instead, it has chosen, largely, to abdicate that responsibility and to accept the status quo. To pretend as though the Board does not have the authority to actually require that a tavern license operate as a tavern is disingenuous at best.]
Another community member asked how the Board will restore the community’s trust. Hafey responded that she reviews the law and the docket materials carefully every week but that she couldn’t respond to any specific criticism of the agency.
A community member from the York Road corridor testified about the 5400 block of York Road, which has three problematic licenses. She asked the Liquor Board to take complaints seriously and not waste community time; she complained specifically about BD-7 tavern licenses. Akras responded that the BLLC doesn’t control state law. The resident responded that he should go back to the state legislature and tell them, “we don’t have teeth [to regulate] because you don’t give us teeth.” Akras reiterated, again, that the agency doesn’t have the authority to make state law.
Community member John Banks spoke next and told the BLLC representatives that he is looking for advocacy and strict enforcement. He wants transformative change, not just to “be heard.” He said that he believes that he pays for and deserves high quality city services. He told Commissioner Hafey that when he hears that she practices medical malpractice defense, it makes him think that she is representing people who are being prosecuted instead of the people who are bringing the case, which translates to him that she would be more likely to be on the side of the licensees instead of being on the side of the community. He said that the Board should be putting the interests of neighbors ahead of the licensees who know how to skirt the law. He concluded, “I am insulted by that. We are injured by that. Our young people are dying on that corner because of that, and it needs to be stopped.”
Mr. Stan Wilson, from Homeland, testified in opposition to the unilateral reopening of Stadium Lounge in July 2015 by newly appointed Chairman Neil. He also objected to the lack of community representation on the Rules and Regulations committee.
Mr. Mills, from Park Heights Renaissance, said that the Liquor Board’s interpretation of an “open” tavern is an insult to the community’s intelligence. He said that when the stores are open, there’s drug and other illegal activity in front of them. When the stores are closed, the activity disappears. He said that the Police Department and the Liquor Board need to work together better. He suggested that the Liquor Board rotate its hearings out into the community and try scheduling them later in the day, so that community members who work during the day can actually attend. Mills echoed the suggestions previously raised that the Liquor Board needs to work with the state legislators to come up with statutory language that serves the needs of the community. He suggested a liquor violation hotline instead of 311, which has not worked well for the community. He said that the law needs to be updated so that violations follow the license itself instead of being wiped clean with every transfer; he pointed out that licensees transfer their licenses to their family members in order to get a clean slate, because the commissioners only look at the violations that have occurred since the last transfer. His final recommendation was that the commissioners calculate the fines for violations of the law based on percentages of the licensees’ gross receipts.
This last set of comments marked the end of the meeting.
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Author’s Note: The deflections of the BLLC representatives at the community outreach meeting were especially striking when read together with the Booze News notes on the BD-7 rules and regulations, reviewed at length by the Rules and Regulations Committee in meetings 7, 8, and 9. At meeting #8, the Executive Secretary “said that the Liquor Board should be able to define what a ‘tavern’ is, and that the term tavern does not really have any meaning to it, as applied to BD-7 licenses, because the license is being used in so many different ways throughout the city.” When a representative of the City Solicitor’s office, Minda Goldberg, suggested that, at minimum, the Liquor Board should bring its regulations in line with the Zoning Board’s description of a tavern, the committee, composed mainly of licensees and their attorneys, roundly rejected her suggestion and kept the original language, though many community members (and even licensees! See the notes from the hearing for 1041 Greenmount Avenue.) have argued over the years that the regulation is confusingly vague. In committee meeting #8, “Bailey-Hedgepeth … said that to change the rule to require ‘consistent and routine’ bar service would be to put some licensees out of business.”
The Liquor Board’s consistent prioritization of licensee profits over community members’ complaints about public health, safety, and welfare is central to the agency’s failure to meet the needs of Baltimore City communities.
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