In an escalation of long-simmering tensions, Anne Arundel County Council Chairman John Grasso has decided to ban the county's Liquor Board from meeting in the council's chambers and conference room in Annapolis.
Grasso shared the news with the board in a one-sentence email sent through council administrator JoAnne Gray last Wednesday afternoon. The message did not offer an explanation, but said the decision was effective immediately.
Grasso, R-Glen Burnie, said the prohibition is a reaction to Gov.
Grasso repeatedly has expressed frustration with the board's decision to deny a liquor license application for The Depot LLC, which has tried for more than four years to obtain a license for a store in Parole's Gateway Shopping Center. The case has wound its way through the courts system on appeal, and is presently awaiting a ruling from the state's highest court.
In September, County Council members unanimously passed Resolution 58-16, which asked Hogan to appoint entirely new members to the three-seat Liquor Board as soon as the commissioners' terms ended on May 1.
Chairman Melvin Hyatt and commissioner James Thomas, both Democrats, announced in February that they would step down. Hogan appointed John Pilkins, a former liquor inspector, and Otis Duffie to be their replacements. The two were sworn in Wednesday.
Grasso accused the governor of hypocrisy on liquor board issues in an interview and post on Facebook. He said he had been encouraged to learn of a reform proposal from Hogan this session that would have instituted greater vetting of liquor commissioners across the state and subjected some of them to state ethics requirements.
"The governor has made statements on the State House steps stating he is all about the liquor board reform act, and we thought we were doing a great thing with the resolution, coming in (and) saying we want a new liquor board," Grasso said. "I'm confused as to why we would put (Warner) in again."
"They have hurt a lot of folks an (sic) our governor is allowing it," he added on Facebook.
"After years of unethical actions hurting people an (sic) business it was time to drain the swamp," Grasso wrote in a separate post. "My next call is to the FBI... stay tuned."
Asked about Hogan's decision to reappoint Warner, spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said in an email that he "has served on the board under governors of both parties since 2003 without incident."
The county's senators, who traditionally send recommendations to the governor before he makes his liquor board appointments, supported Warner for chairman as part of the list of names they sent in February.
The practice of allowing the governor to appoint local liquor board members is a result of the board's unique position as a hybrid agency with degrees of both state and county control. Board expenditures are approved by the state comptroller and paid by the county out of license fee revenues, though council members have no power to alter the board's budget.
As council chair, Grasso has supervisory powers over the body's chambers at the Arundel Center and each corridor adjacent to the chambers, according to the council's rules of procedure.
Liquor board attorney Harry Blumenthal acknowledged that the ban, unprecedented in his 30 years as board counsel, was Grasso's prerogative. But he said the decision could be costly for the county.
"The unfortunate economic result of the decision to uninvite us is that it's going to cost the county a lot of money," he said.
Blumenthal said the board might have to hire a court reporter and lease a new space, which could cut into the $400,000 surplus it is expected to revert to county coffers at the end of the year. He didn't have an estimate yet for how much those new expenses might cost.
County Executive Steve Schuh's administration offered to allow the board to meet in a smaller conference room at the Arundel Center, according to Blumenthal, but the room's 50-person capacity was too small to accommodate hearings where as many as 27 inspectors, a handful of police officers, business owners and the public could be present.
He said the board would find an alternate space before its next scheduled meeting, on June 27.
"We'll have something done," he said. "If nothing else, we'll go find a place on a temporary basis."
Other members of the council have not publicly opposed Grasso's decision.
"The chairman has the purview to control that space," said Councilman Pete Smith, D-Severn. "I think no one really has been in that process as much as he has."
Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, called the announcement "a little bit odd."
"I don't know too much about it," he said. "I suspect we'll be hearing more about this in the coming days, so I'll wait to see what happens."