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City liquor board tells state of reforms in place, others unfinished

Baltimore's liquor board, slammed in a 2013 state audit for mismanagement, now has computer spreadsheets to keep track of fines and fees. It is requiring all applications to be notarized. And employees are required to formally disclose any conflict of interest, according to a report the board compiled for the General Assembly.

But many of the efforts to cure problems detailed in a harsh state audit last year — including a mobile application that inspectors can use to log site visits — remain "in progress," the report says.

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The report shows that six of the auditors' 24 recommendations have been described as "completed." The board's records won't be computerized until at least next summer, the report says, even though the Mayor's Office of Information Technology sent two employees to help the liquor board transfer paper records to electronic files.

Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, the board's executive secretary, presented the report Tuesday to members of the General Assembly's Joint Audit Committee.

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She said that the success of the post-audit overhaul hinges on the modernization of the agency. Staff members are in the process of scanning old records and building an online system that will allow easy tracking of files, uploading of inspection reports and greater transparency for the public.

Bailey-Hedgepeth said she's happy with the progress that the board has made so far. Staff members have boxed up the first set of files to be sent to the scanners, she said.

"I feel very good about it. I am looking forward to moving to digital," she said.

The report is the first look at the board's efforts to update a system that the audit found to be dysfunctional in almost every area of its operations, from its handling of liquor licensing, to inspections and disciplinary procedures for problem bars.

The scope of efforts being made range from the drafting of written policies for inspections to the moving of decades of paper files into a computerized system.

"It's a matter of not having any written protocol for 75 years," Stephan Fogelman, who served as board chairman from 2007 to 2014, said of the magnitude of the board's efforts.

Since the audit was released in March 2013, the commission has replaced a number of its top staff. Bailey-Hedgepeth was brought in as executive secretary to replace Samuel T. Daniels Jr., who'd been with the commission for nearly 30 years. Former Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas Ward was named board chairman. In October, Shelton Jones Jr., a 22-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, was hired as chief inspector.

In that time, enforcement of liquor laws has increased, the report says.

The board issued 132 violation notices this fiscal year, which began July 1, the report says. That is a 12.8 percent increase over charges for the entire previous fiscal year. Of those charged this year, 119 of the charges were upheld.

The state audit found that inspectors routinely failed to complete their daily assignments and that enforcement was inconsistent citywide.

But now, Bailey-Hedgepeth said, the inspectors have been given clear guidelines on inspection procedures. Final policies are set to be approved by the board in 2015.

And the board is introducing a new method of measuring inspectors' work — based on a CitiStat program used by other city agencies — to track how the inspectors are doing their jobs.

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Using a mobile application, the inspectors will upload inspection results while they are on site. Hedgepeth said that eventually they hope to be able to use maps and geolocation with the app to keep track of inspectors.

To address the concerns of residents worried about noise, the board has also purchased sound meters to be used by the inspectors.

The state audit pointed out that the board's antiquated paper file-keeping system also meant that accounting of fees and fines was difficult to track. Many files were in disarray, with documents placed haphazardly and uncashed checks sitting in folders.

One file inspected recently by reporters showed a bar owner won approval to open on a Sunday by simply handing the board a handwritten request on lined paper.

Bailey-Hedgepeth said in her report that the board now accepts only notarized applications, a process that should be made easier once the digitization of records is completed.

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