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News Opinion Editorial

Now or never for the city liquor board

Baltimore has paid for the dysfunction of its liquor board in more ways than one. Lax enforcement of liquor laws can be the scourge of a neighborhood, and "lax" would be a kind description of the way the city's liquor board has operated historically. A prime repository for political patronage jobs doled out by state senators, it has set new standards for disorganization and inefficiency. And despite the fact that the mayor and City Council provide the board's budget, they have no direct say in who is appointed to the liquor board or who is hired as a liquor inspector. If you were to try to design a system to produce ineffectiveness and a lack of accountability, you could hardly do better.

A state audit this spring found that inspectors failed to so much as visit hundreds of licensed establishments every year. Many licensees failed to pay required fees with no consequences. There were also no consequences for inspectors who didn't bother to meet even the minimal standards set out for them; indeed, two workers who were collectively supposed to visit 800 establishments in a year totaled 41 between them. If there was paperwork at all to document what the inspectors did, it was not computerized. One inspector reportedly kept his records in the trunk of his car.

The audit was apparently sufficiently embarrassing that the board is trying to shape up. Board Chairman Stephen Fogleman told legislators last week that the long-time executive secretary had retired, and four of the 14 inspectors had been laid off. The audit, he said, sent a message, and the agency is listening. A work group of state and city officials is trying to yank the board's operations out of the 1970s, if not all the way to the 21st century, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has long complained about the board's lack of accountability to city officials, says it has been more responsive. Among other things, the city is working with the board on an effort to computerize its records.

We're glad to hear that, but this is not exactly the first time someone has noticed that the liquor board was ineffectual, and it's not the first time someone has promised to fix it. The real problem here is a structural one, and we worry that unless the mayor pursues a more fundamental change, the ugly influence of patronage will once again drown out earnest efforts at reform.

Baltimore's state senators have traditionally viewed appointments to the liquor board, and the selection of liquor inspectors, as some of the prime perks of the job. If anyone has been hired there solely based on the merits, we'd be surprised to hear it. Yet when the average city resident has a concern about how well the agency is doing its job, how many would guess that the Senate delegation is the place to lodge a complaint? Meanwhile, the city has increasingly come to realize that poorly regulated bars and package stores are a real drain on the community. They are magnets for crime, they harm public health and they discourage people from living in Baltimore at a time when the mayor's central goal is to bring more families into the city.

The best policy justification for keeping the power to appoint the liquor board in the hands of the Senate delegation is that liquor laws are generally set by the General Assembly, and so it makes sense for legislators to have a role in overseeing their enforcement. That argument might carry more weight if liquor laws were uniform across the state, but they aren't. The General Assembly routinely passes local liquor laws that affect only one jurisdiction and are, in effect, decided only by the delegation from that jurisdiction. That's an illogical anachronism, too.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake is not pushing for a city takeover of the liquor board, saying instead that she is heartened by the recent changes. That may be smart politics. After all, there's a reason no mayor has managed that feat before, and it is that he or she is beholden to the city's senators to get Baltimore's agenda through the legislature. In the classic Annapolis formulation, the juice isn't worth the squeeze.

We urge her to rethink that position. With this audit hanging in the air and a former Baltimore mayor in the governor's mansion — and in the last year of his term, to boot — this is a now-or-never opportunity to inject some real local accountability into liquor law enforcement. Gov. Martin O'Malley knows the headaches this cockamamie arrangement can cause, and he has the persuasive skills to help overcome the no-doubt vociferous objections of most city senators to giving up this bit of power. But he won't try unless the mayor makes it a priority.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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