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Mandatory liquor license mediation harmful to Baltimore and its residents

This legislative session, Senator Joan Carter Conway and the Baltimore City Delegation have reintroduced House Bill 747 and Senate Bill 398, which would give the Baltimore City Liquor Board the authority to require mediation between liquor licensees and community members before a public hearing can be scheduled for a license renewal protest. The liquor board itself requested that this bill be introduced.

Mediation can be a very helpful tool, and the board can already — and should — encourage communities and licensees to work out their differences, either informally or with the help of a professional. However, there are several reasons why these mandatory mediation bills would be terribly harmful for Baltimore communities and the public health of the city.

First a little background: All liquor licenses in Maryland are renewed annually, and community members who live or own property in the “immediate vicinity” of any license — from the smallest corner store to the Horseshoe Casino — have the legal right to protest any renewal by submitting a petition against the renewal. After the petition is submitted and vetted, the local board of license commissioners must hold a hearing to decide whether to renew the license.

Ultimately, it is the liquor board’s job to regulate licensees, not the community’s. According to the Maryland Court of Appeals, a protest of renewal is a “signal to the Board” that the licensee may not be following the law. The board is therefore required to “look into any possible problems that would require the denial of a renewal.” The renewal of a license is not a matter between a licensee and the community; rather, it is a matter between the licensee and the board. Therefore, the board should be taking an active look into the licensee’s practices in order to decide whether it is in the best interest of the public health of the community for the licensee to continue operating.

In requesting this bill, the board is placing its own regulatory responsibility on the back of the community that has already been suffering the consequences of the board’s historic failure to do its job.

Requiring mediation before a public hearing would also cause logistical nightmares. Protest of renewal petitions are due to the board on or before March 31. The board must then decide whether to renew a license before May 1, the first day of a new license year. State law requires two weeks’ public notice before any hearing may be held. When, in that short time frame, is the community supposed to be able to schedule and hold a meeting with a professional mediator?

There are also significant legal problems with mandatory mediation. Oftentimes, dozens (or more) of community members sign protest of renewal petitions. Who is legally authorized to negotiate on behalf of dozens of individual neighbors with varying concerns in a mediation process?

Furthermore, community members often have safety concerns, though they’re hesitant to bring complaints about serious crime issues like drug dealing and violence because of worries about their family's safety. Why should they be required to attend mediation with licensees of whom they may be afraid?

And finally, since the bill leaves it up to the board to decide when to require mediation, how will the board decide which of the protests of renewal requires it? It is fundamentally patronizing for the board to require community members to attend yet another meeting, perhaps in a completely unfamiliar part of the city, in order to find a solution to problems that the community did not create and does not profit from.

The Baltimore City Liquor Board’s entire reason for existence, under the Alcoholic Beverage article of state law is for “the protection, health, welfare, and safety of the people.” Unfortunately, when community members bring their concerns to the board, they are treated like inconveniences. If the agency cared about improving public health and safety, it would request more statutory power to hold licensees accountable, not place the power they currently have on the backs of communities already weakened by decades of structural inequality.

Becky Lundberg Witt is a staff attorney at the Community Law Center; her email is beckyw@communitylaw.org.

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