Gratitude for a public service job well done [Commentary]

By the time this column makes it into print and on the web, Donald St. Clair Hess will have concluded his 18-year tenure on the Harford County Liquor Control Board.

Hess, who was not reappointed to his seat by Harford County Executive David Craig, planned to attend his last meeting as a board member on Wednesday. Call it coincidence, but the board also planned to announce a new initiative aimed the rise of the use of fake IDs to obtain alcohol in Harford, one of the many issues Hess tackled head on during his tenure.

A seat on the liquor board is a political patronage appointment, pure and simple, and in Harford this fact is magnified by a three-tiered gauntlet a prospective board member must run: the county executive nominates you, the county's state senators and state delegates have to then approve your nomination and then the county council also has to concur. Someone seeking a seat on the board can get tripped up at any point in the process, as we have seen on many past occasions.

In Hess' case, he ran afoul of certain people who have Craig's ear. The executive's string-pullers got their way, and Hess was replaced. That's politics, folks.

From my experience covering the Harford liquor board on and off for the past 40 years, the chairman - who is selected by the five board members - sets the tone for how tough the board is going to be when it comes to such matters as meting out fines and suspensions for license violations and for tolerating subterfuge in the licensing process and other transgressions, such as serving people too much to drink.

The board under Hess' leadership dealt with all these matters multiple times. The members were confronted with some of the most egregious license swindles any liquor board has ever dealt with, and the members refused to bury their heads in the sand following a horrific situation when a man was allowed to drink in a bar after hours and then went out and crashed his pickup into another vehicle, killing three people. The board also dealt with the aftermath of a near riot against police called to restore order at the old Tully's of Fallston following a Halloween party that finally resulted the license being revoked, after numerous violations.

Some might say Hess was a zealot about serving minors, which many licensees in fact do as a matter of course because it's money in their pockets. He was polite about it when the transgressors came in shucking and jiving that it "was a busy night" or "the employee didn't pay attention" or some other cockamamie reason why they didn't card a 16-year-old or "the light was bad" and they couldn't read the birth date on the vertical driver's license, which is vertical why? Because the person it is issued to is under 21. Hess could look incredulous at the excuses without seeming to be doing so, but you knew he wasn't fooled.

As noted earlier, I followed the LCB a long time and have known many of the past members and chairmen (and chairwomen) as well as I've known anyone. That also includes C. John Sullivan, the man appointed to replace Hess (who is Hess' brother-in-law). Sullivan and I are former next-door neighbors and from his former work as a tax assessor first for Harford County and then for the state of Maryland, our professional relationship goes way, way back.

For the most part, I can't remember anyone who has served on the liquor board whom I thought didn't do a stand-up job. In fact, most of the past board members and leaders were exemplary public servants. We should expect no less from Sullivan.

It will, however, be interesting to see what course the board will take without Hess. The next two longest serving members, Sandi Tunney and Vernon Gauss, are very much like Hess, tough minded and not easily fooled. The other two holdover members, Tom Fidler and Michael Thomson haven't served long enough to really get a handle on them as regulators, particularly because Hess fairly well dominated what the board did. We'll see how the five mesh as a unit.

I know there are some out there who think the editors at The Aegis make too much of what the liquor board does and who likewise may question the need for all this government regulation. That's understandable. I worked for many years in a regulated business (taxicabs), and a dubiously regulated one at that, and I often found myself asking what was the point of it all?

My view of the alcohol industry, however, is if it were not regulated, there would be a package goods store on every corner and in every shopping center and plenty of 14-year-olds would be walking around with bottles of hooch in their back pockets. We'd have a hell of a lot more serious motor vehicle accidents caused by alcohol impairment. (Notice how those numbers have declined locally in recent years.) We'd also have plenty of people with zero ties to the community operating businesses that would probably have a lot more things going on in them then just the selling of beer, wine and liquor.

You need people like the Don Hesses of the world to keep a eye on this stuff. Like those who passed the torch to him, Hess has done the same and moved on, secure in the belief, I suspect, that he did his best. Perhaps that understates the situation. Hess was very, very good, and all of us in Harford County owe him our gratitude for his unselfish and honest service.

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