Gov. Larry Hogan plans to replace all three members of Baltimore's liquor board, sparking concern from some who worry that the long-troubled agency's reforms could be derailed.
Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor, said Hogan is not announcing the replacements yet. But she said they will take office July 1.
"The governor was looking for qualified candidates who have a diverse background and experience," Churchill said. "I don't think it's based on partisanship at all."
Attorney Dana P. Moore, one of the current board members, said Hogan's appointments secretary, James D. Fielder Jr., called her to say the governor had decided to replace the entire board.
"It has been a tremendous honor to do this work," said Moore, who was appointed by former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. "My hope is that communities will continue to be an important part of this board, and that businesses will understand the impact they have on the communities in which they operate."
Liquor board chairman Thomas Ward, an 88-year-old former judge also appointed by O'Malley, had already planned to retire this month. But he said he's concerned Hogan will appoint individuals who are not trained in liquor law and who will side with businesses instead of communities.
"I'm very concerned," said Ward. "The liquor board is in good shape."
The third commissioner, Harvey E. Jones, a former campaign aide for Democratic Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway, will become a board alternate, Churchill said.
For years, a patronage system gave state senators considerable influence over who landed jobs with the board. But a change in culture at the agency occurred after a scathing audit in 2013 revealed widespread mismanagement and spotty enforcement by the agency.
The audit found, among other problems, that about 200 bars were never inspected during an entire year. Two liquor board inspectors who were expected to conduct more than 800 liquor establishment inspections each year completed only 41, the audit said.
Ward was appointed chair with the understanding he would change that.
Under his leadership, the liquor board has gained a reputation for cracking down on bars it sees as problems. This fiscal year, the board has found 241 violations at Baltimore's bars, compared with 94 the previous year. The board has closed or revoked 28 licenses compared with eight a year before.
The crackdown won praise from community groups tired of out-of-control partying, but business owners argued that the enforcement had grown too harsh.
Ward has also required more from the board's eight inspectors, ordering them to work at night and on weekends and to conduct 10 to 12 bar inspections per day.
"The inspectors are doing what they're supposed to do now," Ward said. "We began punishing bars that were creating havoc in neighborhoods by their policies."
Churchill said Hogan has no desire to return to the old days. "He is committed to selecting talented, experienced people to represent the interests of the city," she said.
But the pending changes at the board have sparked concern among community members.
Ira Kowler, an assistant director of neighborhood programs with the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, has asked city residents to write Hogan asking him to honor the board's current direction.
"We have been alerted to the fact that new Liquor Board Commissioners are due to be appointed at the end of June," he wrote. "With the new Administration, there is a growing concern that Governor Hogan will appoint new Commissioners who are more 'pro-business' and less likely to take into consideration community concerns in addressing problem liquor outlets."
Attorney Becky Witt of the Community Law Center said she was concerned that Moore was not being retained. "She's taken the job really seriously and done her homework," Witt said. "It would be real shame to lose her."
But lawyer Abraham L. Hurdle, who represents bars before the board, said he'd like to see more even enforcement by the board. The agency acknowledged in January that some large venues have not been subject to the unannounced inspections that smaller bars and restaurants routinely undergo.
"If you break the rules you should be punished, but everything has to be done the right way," Hurdle said.
A state agency that's funded by the city, the liquor board holds its meetings at City Hall and has a budget of $1.7 million.
The job of liquor board commissioner is considered a part-time position. It pays $28,000.
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