'Tougher' liquor board increases violations, closures

The new head of the city liquor board has a message for Baltimore's sometimes out-of-control bar scene: The party's over.

In its first three months of action, a revamped liquor board — chaired by Thomas Ward, a tough-talking, 87-year-old former judge — already has found nearly 120 bars and liquor stores guilty of violations, significantly more than the previous board did in all of fiscal 2014.

Ward's board has closed or revoked eight licenses, as many as in all of the last fiscal year. And the panel recently made a potentially precedent-setting ruling against so-called "zombie licenses," which could jeopardize alcohol service at dozens of establishments across the city.

"Some of these places have a sense of arrogance," Ward said. "They think, 'We have a right to do what we want to do, and to heck with the community.'

"If they don't mend their ways, they're going to lose their licenses."

The board's tough new approach has won praise from community groups and elected officials. But it has sparked anger from bar owners over what they say is inconsistent enforcement.

Twelve establishments already have appealed the board's decisions. Even attorney Becky Lundberg Witt, who tracks liquor board decisions on behalf of neighborhoods, says Ward has sometimes sought penalties she believes are more severe than the law allows.

"It's a move in the right direction," said Witt, of the Community Law Center. "They're being tougher, but I want them to follow the law. It makes me nervous when they don't. And I wish they were more consistent."

The General Assembly approved emergency changes to the liquor board this year after a scathing audit revealed widespread mismanagement and spotty enforcement by the agency.

Lawmakers sought to do away with the patronage system that gave state senators considerable influence over who landed jobs with the board.

A committee made up of city and state officials helped select new board executive Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth. Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed two new members to the board: Ward and attorney Dana P. Moore.

The panel includes one holdover from the previous board: Harvey E. Jones.

The General Assembly required the agency to post all records of its work online starting in July 2015, and to participate in Baltimore's CitiStat program, which tracks the performance of city agencies.

Bailey-Hedgepeth says she and the new board have cleared out a backlog of nearly 100 cases since taking over, and ended a practice in which the executive decided some cases without consulting the panel.

The liquor board can institute penalties for a wide range of regulatory violations, including disturbing the peace and serving alcohol to someone who is already intoxicated.

Bailey-Hedgepeth wants the board to take "a much more proactive stance" toward seeking out violations, rather than waiting for police or community groups to make allegations.

Ward says the board no longer limits testimony against a bar to people who live within a few hundred feet of the establishment. He says the panel considers all violations, no matter how old, as part of bar's record.

But he says the agency still has problems getting police officers to show up and give necessary testimony.

"That's a problem which we'll solve," Ward said.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, the Baltimore Democrat who spearheaded the board's overhaul in the Senate, says bar owners who grumble about liquor board decisions have little to complain about. The panel is simply enforcing laws that the previous board ignored, he said.

"It's a new day in Baltimore for the licensing and regulation of liquor," Ferguson says. "In the past, decisions were more about relationships instead of applying the law. They made decisions in informal conferences the audit said were illegal.

"Switching to public hearings has allowed more transparency and a greater public understanding of what's legal and illegal. Violations and revenues are up. The process is clearer. Now we are licensing alcohol establishments as was intended under the law."

Enforcement up

In its first three months, the new board has found violations in 119 cases, more than three times the number found during the same time period last year. The old board issued a total of 94 guilty findings in fiscal 2014.

Jose Enrique Ribadeneira, owner of the Latin Palace in Fells Point, says he's on the verge of losing his 17-year-old business after the liquor board shut him down for two months for hosting an amateur boxing match.

He reopened in early October, but he says the board's crackdown means he can't hold the salsa lessons and dance parties that have sustained the bar and restaurant. His liquor license doesn't allow live entertainment outside of wedding receptions or private parties.

Ribadeneira says he had an agreement with the old board to offer dancing and events. Although his license never reflected that agreement, a review of past reports show inspectors did not always cite violations, and sometimes violations were not pursued.

"It's all political, and we were singled out and have very little chance to survive," Ribadeneira said. "We are still fighting, but I don't know if [we can] pull it through.

"I close my eyes and say, 'I can't compete. I can't fight these people.' But I know they will do it to someone else."

Days before the boxing match in February, a liquor board inspector warned Ribadeneira against proceeding. When she showed up on the night of the match, according to the board records, she found a crowd of 140 spectators, security guards and a full-sized ring with two fighters and a referee.

At the subsequent hearing, Ward told Ribadeneira that "it seems to me that you have a major problem."

"Somewhere along the line, you've gotten the idea that you can do what you want," Ward said, according to a transcript of the hearing. "You can't."

Ribadeneira and other Hispanic business owners say he is being targeted unfairly by Fells Point neighborhood groups for his heritage. In interviews and written testimony to the board, community activists have denied any discrimination.

Victor Corbin, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association, said the Latin Palace had violated the rules of its license. "The law is the law," said Corbin, who also is Hispanic

"Sometimes I think people forget that bars are located in residential areas, and especially down here, it's very tight," Corbin said. "You might think Broadway is a commercial corridor, but the street right behind it is residential homes. Whatever happens on one street affects other streets."

Federal Hill Hospitality Association President Brian McComas says he's appealing a recent board decision to declare void an unused liquor license for the Crossbar der Biergarten, the German-style beer garden he is planning.

State law says that unused liquor licenses — which Witt and others have dubbed "zombie licenses" — are void after 180 days, but the previous board had allowed such licenses to stay valid if their owners paid their annual fees. McComas says his team has paid $1,300 a year for the license since 2009.

Witt says the Crossbar case was the first time the new board has enforced the 180-day law. She said the new board has not killed eight other licenses in similar situations.

"The board needs to figure out what the law is and apply it to everyone," Witt said. "It's really unfair to businesses when they don't know whether something is going to be enforced or not. It's also unfair to communities."

Moore, one of the new board members, says she realizes the decision on the Crossbar could have wide impact and marked a departure from past board rulings. A turning point for her view on so-called zombie licenses came when former state Sen. George Della explained the legislative intent behind the law.

"Even though our decision was for that case, it does have implications beyond Crossbar," she said. "I spent hours trying to understand that case. It's just not possible to ignore the law."

Rufus Lusk III, who chairs the liquor advisory committee of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, said some of the neighbors challenging the Crossbar's license felt they "were getting the runaround" from the previous board.

"We love the fact that current board reads and interprets the law as it's written," he said.

He said the old board contributed to a "drinking culture that gets carried away" in some neighborhoods. Now, board members seem "to be very rigorous and studious and want to do the right thing and have an open mind."

He added, "The liquor interest is generally better funded then community groups, and it's sometimes been very hard for the community groups to fully present their positions and get a full hearing. I think that's going to start to change."

A change in culture

Ward said Baltimore's bar culture has changed dramatically over the years. The days of "community bars" have been replaced by what he calls "money bars" — bars with outside seating, entertainment and noise that have a significant effect on rowhouse communities, especially around the water. And when it doesn't follow regulations, the board gets lots of complaints.

Ward doesn't believe the board has been overly harsh — if anything, he says, it's been quite lenient in the first three months. But he said he's learned that issuing fines doesn't have the same effect as ordering closures.

"A fine means nothing to these people," he said. "I'm going to get their attention."

Moore says she's not trying to run roughshod over Baltimore's bars but wants to make sure the worst offenders improve.

"The vast majority of bars you don't even hear from," she said. "There's a peaceful co-existence with their neighbors.

"In some bars there are shootings and drug deals and people being injured, Moore said, adding, "There are bars where people are urinating, vomiting. To me, those are the issues that have got to be addressed, and they have got to be stopped."

Brooke Lierman, an attorney who has represented community groups before the board, says tougher enforcement ultimately will be better for business.

"If you're a small business following the letter of the law, but your competitors are violating the law and getting away with it, you're at a disadvantage," she said. "To me, fair application of the law is an incredibly important part of the liquor board's mandate."

Witt and other community advocates hope the board's new push has an impact.

"I would hope the board's strictness would wake up some of these businesses," she said.

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By the numbers

Eight: the number of bars or liquor stores the new board has closed or revoked a license for in its first three months. The number for the same period last year: one.

119: the number of bars and liquor stores the board has found guilty of violations in three months. The number for the same period last year: 33.

12: the number of outlets that have appealed the board's recent actions.

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