Following a scathing audit that revealed widespread mismanagement and spotty enforcement by Baltimore's liquor board, state lawmakers are poised to approve emergency changes to reshape the troubled agency.
Bills that advocates say would reform the liquor board — requiring that all records be posted online and granting the city government more control — passed the House of Delegates Monday and garnered initial approval in the Senate on Tuesday.
"This would be the largest overhaul of Baltimore City's liquor board since Prohibition," said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who was one of five state lawmakers who helped craft the bills in response to last year's audit.
"If we fully implement this, the liquor board will be one of the most transparent agencies in Baltimore City," he said.
A final vote in the Senate could come as soon as this week, although subtle differences between the bills would need to be resolved before the legislation could be sent to the governor.
While critics say the plan does not go far enough to fix the liquor board because it would still be appointed by state senators, Stephan Fogleman, chairman of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, called the pending changes "earth-shifting."
"This audit, for as bad as it was, really has moved some mountains," Fogleman said. "Things that would have taken 30 or 40 years to change will take 30 or 40 months after the audit to change."
The liquor board, a hybrid city-state agency, has long been a vestige of political patronage. The city's senators play a key role in appointing its three members. Critics say the staff has been accountable to neither state nor city officials.
The proposals to overhaul the board have moved quietly through the General Assembly this year despite auditors' high-profile revelations of the agency's shortcomings.
The audit found the liquor board meted out punishment inconsistently. The agency had no written policies for how liquor inspectors should do their jobs. Records on complaint investigations went missing, and auditors concluded that the agency did not review employee performance. Two liquor board inspectors who were expected to conduct more than 800 liquor establishment inspections each year completed only 41.
And the board used a paper filing system so antiquated that one worker told auditors he stored records in the trunk of his car to ensure they would not get lost.
While the board laid off employees and began shifting the way it did business within months of last spring's audit, a work group of state legislators and staff members to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake decided more changes were necessary.
Under the legislation pushed by the work group, the agency would be required to post online all records of its work starting in July 2015. The governor would appoint new board members this May, and the agency would be required to participate in Baltimore's CitiStat program, which aggressively tracks city agencies' performance.
The bill would also grant the city stricter scrutiny of the agency's budget, although the board would not answer to the mayor. Instead, state senators would still be involved in advising the governor on whom to appoint to the board.
Rawlings-Blake said she believes the legislation provides a necessary overhaul to make the agency more transparent and more efficient, said Kevin R. Harris, a mayoral spokesman. The bills would also subject liquor board members to city ethics regulations. Harris called the legislation "critical reforms that would provide the city with more leverage in improving the board's operations and responsiveness to taxpayers."
Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, however, called most of the bill's provisions "rearranging deck chairs."
Henry said that while forcing the liquor board to participate in CitiStat is helpful, the only way to ensure accountability is to divorce the board from the state's political appointment process.
"I want it to be different than it is now, and this is not, at the end of the day, a significant difference in how the organization is run," said Henry, who is running for the General Assembly against Sen. Joan Carter Conway.
Henry said a generation of lax liquor law enforcement created problems for neighborhoods throughout the city. And as a result, the city is now weighing whether to force about 100 liquor stores to close.
The outdated paper records have frustrated business owners and community groups trying to follow the liquor board's actions, neighborhood leaders say. Fogleman, the current chair, said he started his Twitter account in order to broadcast the way the board does business.
"Responsible businesses have to deal with outdated policies, and community members have to basically be professional detectives to understand what's going on," said Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore attorney who provides pro bono representation to community groups before the liquor board. "Nobody is winning right now. The board isn't working for anybody right now."
Lierman, who is a candidate for the House of Delegates, said that while she hopes the legislature will revisit the issue to evaluate whether the overhaul has gone far enough, "this is a great first step."