When the Liquor Board went to the Abell Foundation, it wasn't to torpedo a critic's funding—even though that ended up happening.
City Paper got a tip this week that Liquor Board members had "bragged" about getting the Abell Foundation to cut funding for the Community Law Center's "Booze News" blog. "Booze News" has watchdogged the Liquor Board through several iterations over three years. No one involved will confirm that (and one supposed source denied having heard it). But Booze News was de-funded.
And the meeting did happen—which may be a violation of open meeting laws.
All three members of the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners arrived at 2 p.m. on Aug. 8 at Robert Embry's 23d floor office to discuss the agency's response to a tough legislative audit.
"They were there to make the case that they were making improvements," says Embry, president of the Abell Foundation. "I don't recall the audit in detail enough to know what was in the audit and what they were referring to."
What the board did not do, he says, is ask him to rein in Becky Lunberg Witt, a lawyer with the Community Law Center who writes the "Booze News" blog. Abell had funded the blog at $90,000 and $95,000 per year until last month. Witt has been to almost every Liquor Board meeting for more than two years, and her posts have excoriated some of the board's actions. Even after the new board was seated last summer, she did not let up. A July 30 op-ed in The Sun decried the agency's "40 Years of Failure."
Liquor Board Chairman Albert Matricciani Jr. responded with his own letter to The Sun, charging that Witt, because she represents community associations before the board, "has inherent bias to those interests and close ties to the online Baltimore Brew publication, which is quick to criticize the commission for its perceived actions that may not always serve its readers interests over all others." He said that, in criticizing the fledgling board, Witt was "neither helpful nor constructive."
But neither Matricciani nor the other two board members—Dana Moore and Aaron Greenfield—said any of that to Embry. "It wouldn't be unreasonable for them to make that argument," Embry says. "But that wasn't what they were doing."
Moore, who called the meeting, says the main pitch was for funding: "We have the idea for a liaison, someone to talk to communities," Moore says, but the agency has a limited budget. "I'm always reading in the paper that Abell Foundation funds this thing or that thing, so I wondered if the Abell Foundation could fund something for us."
She says Embry told her the foundation does not ordinarily fund government functions, but that the board could apply in September. She says she thinks it didn't happen.
Just like bad-mouthing Becky Witt didn't happen. Though her organization's name did come up.
"We talked about the Community Law Center," Moore says. "I'm an advocate of the Community Law Center and Becky Witt. I told him they make the Liquor Board better, and they could only make me better as a commissioner.
"I think there had been a little kerfuffle" between Witt and the chairman, she allows, "but I don't believe in kerfuffles."
(Shortly after City Paper spoke to Moore, Embry called back to say that Matricciani just reminded him of the funding request. He does not say he discouraged the liquor board: "It's not up to me, it's up to our board. But it's certainly eligible.")
Witt says she heard rumors about the meeting, but the way Booze News got de-funded felt routine.
"They give you the same spiel, that they have so many good projects," she says. "They funded us three years… and they cut us off another [CLC] project after three."
Witt says there was some discussion from Abell about whether there was a continuing need for Booze News. "They did give us a little pushback," she says, "like the liquor board is all fixed now, so why do we still need it?"
She says that if liquor board members did try to defund her, "it makes me want to do Booze News for free for the rest of my life."
Moore laughs when told this. "As well she should," she says. "I think she's fantastic. The three of us [new Liquor Board commissioners] wouldn't be here if not for Becky and her advocacy."
"I feel like I've always had a pretty good relationship with Dana," Witt agrees. "I would certainly doubt that the chairman would say good things about me."
A recent post addressing the funding shortfall says Booze News will continue in a limited capacity.
Whatever was discussed, there apparently were no minutes kept and the meeting was not publicly announced. The meeting, which included the full board, does not fit any of the exemptions in the Maryland Opens Meetings Law checklist, raising the possibility that it violated the state's open meetings law.
"I can't think of any comparable thing that's happened in the last 30 years, with a whole board or commission coming to see me," says Embry, who in the past has led the city's school board and served as housing commissioner. "I would have been happy to have it open."
"We didn't discuss any cases," says Moore. "We didn't make any decisions and we weren't doing any deliberations at all. So, I don't think so. I thought open meetings meant deliberations."
"My understanding for the open meetings law is that it's generally applicable when the subject matter is a public decision," says State Sen. Bill Ferguson (46th District) and chairman of the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government. "It's not necessarily whenever they're all together, but that's the gray zone… the question of what constitutes board business."
Ferguson, as it happens, says he has some insight into the board's business with Embry. He says he met with them a couple of weeks prior to the Embry meeting to express his frustration with the Liquor Board's lack of an online archive. The board is a mystery to too many people, he says, breeding the sort of intrigue and conspiracy theory that wafts off it like a dry ice fog.
"During that meeting I said I really wish you had a position in your office that would be like an ombudsman," Ferguson says. "Someone to walk people through the liquor board process… because right now it's more like who you know."
The budget wouldn't allow it, Ferguson says he was told, "so I said, 'Well why don't you talk to some of the foundations?'"