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Internal dissension hobbles enforcement by liquor board

Sun Staff

Theresa Preston is fed up with the sideshow that unfolds in front of theWashington Street tavern, a hangout for rowdies in her East Baltimoreneighborhood. Loiterers purchase liquor in the tavern and stand outside anddrink it. They curse, panhandle and urinate in public.

Last year, Preston and her neighbors took their complaints to the BaltimoreBoard of Liquor License Commissioners, the state agency that enforces liquorlaws in the city. But the agency, which has been torn by internal bickeringand corruption allegations, has done virtually nothing to help.

Others have also gone to the board and gotten the runaround.

Those include the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, which hasasked the board to sanction a bar cited twice in recent years for illegalliquor purchases.

And South Baltimore residents who complain about a bar with raucous livebands.

And Patterson Park homeowners who say they are losing sleep because of abar manager who plays loud music and allows patrons to loiter.

The board monitors about 1,400 liquor establishments in the city. It'sstaffed with a team of inspectors, and it can levy fines or close chronicoffenders. But critics say the agency is not fulfilling its mission.

"The liquor board is not enforcing license requirements," Preston said."There don't seem to be any rules."

Board Chairman Mark S. Fosler concedes that internal problems have hurt theboard's ability to do its job, and he has promised reform.

"I don't want to pretend that it is going to be blue skies and sunshine,"he said. "But I think we will be turning some corners for the good, and wewill be more responsive."

The board has been racked by dissention in recent months. In April, chiefliquor inspector Samuel T. Daniels Jr. filed a lawsuit charging twocommissioners with political collusion and corruption. He took legal actionafter he was suspended for conducting investigations and speaking to the presswithout proper approval.

Daniels also accused state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of trying to get himfired so her husband, a liquor inspector who works with Daniels, could get hisjob. Conway denied any involvement.

In June, the city's labor commissioner partially vindicated Daniels when heruled that the inspector had been unfairly suspended. Daniels eventuallydropped the lawsuit.

Still, his charges deepened existing splits on the board.Then-commissioners Claudia L. Brown and John A. Green Jr. accused Fosler ofgoing behind their backs to initiate investigations of problem bars. They alsoaccused Fosler of conspiring with Daniels. Fosler blamed Brown and Green forholding up board reform.

This month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. re-appointed Fosler to serve asecond term as board chairman, a part-time job that pays $18,500 a year. Healso replaced Brown and Green with Jeffrey B. Pope, a software engineer, andEdward Smith Jr., a Baltimore attorney. Each will earn $18,000 a year.

Fosler said he hopes the new members will get along better.

"I hope we can just get on with the business we have to do and enforce thelaws we have to enforce," Fosler said when he was sworn in July 21.

Enforcement is what Preston and her neighbors have been after for close totwo years. But the board has continued to renew the liquor license forWashington Street tavern owner Kiff Kim - although its records show it knew hewas violating liquor laws.

Kim's license requires him to sell and serve liquor inside the tavern.Instead, Kim sells bottles of beer and spirits over the counter as if he wereoperating a package goods store. Liquor board inspector Ed Owens visited thetavern March 2, 2004, and noticed that although the tavern had a smallcounter, there was "no patron service," according to board documents.

The tavern is at 435 N. Washington St., about a block east of Johns Hopkins Hospital and near a planned $1 billion biotechnology park that is expected toreinvigorate the area. Kim told a Sun reporter he wants to "upgrade" thetavern to appeal to the professionals the biotech center is expected to bring.He recently had the building's exterior painted and trash cleared from therooftop.

"I do care about my neighborhood, too," said Kim, who lives in EllicottCity.

Meanwhile, loiterers continue to gather. Kim said he will admit people tothe bar if they ask, but when a reporter visited the tavern recently, the doorto the bar was locked. An employee said the bar was closed. Kim said that theemployee was wrong and that he would correct him.

Preston and her neighbors are tired of waiting for change and tired ofspending countless hours organizing petition drives and protests that seem togo nowhere with the liquor board.

"They [the liquor board] have made these rules into a jigsaw puzzle," saidDr. Patrick Tong, a pediatric ophthalmologist who lives near the tavern andhas worked with Preston. "There have been so many breaches of the law that Ido not understand how this license could be renewed."

When residents first complained to the liquor board last year, they weretold the board would set up a meeting with them and Kim within 90 days. Theboard never got back to them, and they eventually worked with the HistoricEast Baltimore Community Action Committee to set up a meeting, which tookplace March 24, nearly a year after the initial board hearing.

Liquor licenses are subject to annual renewal, and when residents returnedto the liquor board April 21 to protest for a second year in a row, they weretold once again that the board would convene a meeting with Kim within 90days. But when 90 days passed without any contact from the board, residentshad to take it upon themselves to contact the board and set up a meeting.

Asked why the board failed to set the meeting by the deadline, liquor boardexecutive secretary Nathan C. Irby Jr., a former state senator from EastBaltimore, said, "We're just busy."

Irby, who was appointed to the post in 1997 and earns $80,676 a year, saidthe 90-day period was just a guideline and it didn't really matter that themeeting had yet to occur. Irby said he later set a up meeting with the twosides for Aug. 10.

Those who have dealt with the board say such lapses are typical.

Jill Shandrowski, who lives near the Diaz Sports Club in the 100 block ofS. Bouldin St. near Patterson Park, said she has complained about noise andloiterers. Records show that bar manager Juan Diaz has been cited for sellingalcohol to a minor and allowing patrons to leave the bar with open containers.

Efforts to reach Diaz were unsuccessful.

"It's just annoying that they get a slap on the wrist and it goes on,"Shandrowski said.

In South Baltimore, residents Kristen Lang and Auric Zygala have complainedfor years about noise from live bands at the Royal, in the 1500 block of LightSt. But when an inspector came to their home to measure noise, he refused toshow them the decibel reading, Lang said.

Although Royal owners say they are converting the venue into a restaurant,Lang and Zygala say they are moving out.

"The liquor board has no backbone," Lang said.

Gerald Majer, a member of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association,said his group has complained for years to the liquor board about Honey'sLounge in the 1700 block of Gough St.

Liquor board records show that the bar has been cited twice in recent yearsfor illegally purchasing alcohol from a source other than a licensedwholesaler and has been raided by police, who found evidence of illegalgambling.

Honey's owner Nidia Sierra did not return telephone calls.

Said Majer: "I've learned, much to my dismay, that it doesn't do a wholelot of good to go to the liquor board."

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