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Legislators ask for proof of change in Baltimore liquor board audit review

Legislators ask for proof of change in Baltimore liquor board audit review
The Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners appeared before the state Joint Audit Committee on Wednesday. (Sarah Meehan)

Despite Baltimore liquor board commissioners' assurances that longstanding problems within the agency are being fixed, legislators on the state's Joint Audit Committee said they wanted proof and plan to check in again in six months to ensure progress is being made.

The city's Board of Liquor License Commissioners went before the Maryland General Assembly's Joint Audit Committee Wednesday morning for a hearing on an audit released on the board in July. The report revealed many problems uncovered in a 2013 audit had not been addressed by the time auditors completed their investigation in late 2015.

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Legislative auditor Thomas J. Barnickel III said at the hearing the agency has been slow to correct problems entrenched within its culture, but were hopeful recent steps could alleviate issues that have historically plagued the board.

Timothy Brooks, the state's director of performance audits, noted the board has been audited in 2007, 2013 and 2016, "where essentially the same findings were presented."

"For each report, the [liquor board] has substantially agreed with implementing the audit recommendations," Brooks said. "So for nine years simply agreeing has not resolved the issues."

The board's new commissioners, who joined the agency in April, explained they have already implemented changes to address those issues, including publishing written policies and procedures, tracking liquor inspectors' performance and creating an online database of liquor license records.

Members of the committee said they wanted proof that the board would continue to improve its efficiency and accountability. Sen. Guy Guzzone, senate chairman for the committee, suggested meeting with the board more regularly between audits, a measure board Chairman Albert Matricciani said he'd be open to.

"I think it would be good. I'm anxious to sort of get rid of this stuff that goes back five and six years that we were not a part of," he said in an interview following the hearing. "I think we've really moved on from it, so I think six months from now our numbers and our results will look really positive."

The board is required to be audited at least once every three years under state law.

Some of the recurring issues auditors uncovered in the 2016 report included the board mishandling cash receipts, approving licenses that had expired and failing to track employees' performance.

Turnover of the agency's executive staff and commissioners slowed changes in the board's operations, Brooks said, although the board has been constantly in contact with state auditors since the 2013 audit was released. The committee encouraged the board to implement succession plans to avoid problems during any future turnover.

"If you don't have what you believe you need, you still have to be able to function as a body," Del. Michael Jackson said. "There's got to be a succession plan piece to ensure that things move."

Brooks said the new written policies and procedures the board adopted in July should help fix many of the audit's findings.

"The key was getting the processes down that they would adhere to, and I think that's what these new policies and procedures do," Brooks said. "Now it's a matter of, do they carry them out?"

In addition to publishing written standard operating procedures and releasing an online database of liquor license records for the public, the liquor board has also trimmed staff and created a budget surplus.

"While we may have been slow in the past to respond to your calls for accountability and transparency, we now hear you," Matricciani said. "Our efforts to enhance our technology to allow us to be more effective are steadily coming to fruition."

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Becky Witt, a Community Law Center attorney who keeps close watch over the liquor board, wrote in a letter to the committee that she was dismayed by what she read in the audit.

"Though the Board claims a high investigative success rate now, what's the legacy of decades of neglect and uninvestigated complaints?" she wrote. "What about the community members who have given up complaining because of the lack of follow-through by this agency?"

She said after the hearing she wants to see trust restored between the board and Baltimore residents.

"There are whole swaths of the city where people don't show up to hearings, and I feel like those are the communities that are most important to reach out to," she said.

Del. Stephen Lafferty suggested creating a citizens' advisory committee to work with the board.

Other neighborhood leaders wrote to the committee to express their satisfaction of working with the board. Mike Hilliard, director of community services for the HARBEL Community Organization, wrote that Executive Secretary Douglas Paige and Chief Inspector Mark Fosler have been responsive to his community's concerns. His group represents more than 80 community associations in Northeast Baltimore.

"If one of our communities has a complaint about a licensee or an issue pending before the Board, they are the two people I have consistently turned to resolve the issue or provide clarity on how to resolve the issue," he wrote. "If they were not employed by the Board, it would make my position far more difficult."

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden commended the new commissioners for the work they have done since they joined the board.

"This was a mess... and we were able to kind of fix this thing," he said.

Commissioner Dana Moore said their work to improve won't end.

"All of the questions to us are action items," Moore said.

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