A bill that would have taken a small step toward reforming Baltimore City's patronage-ridden Liquor Board was an innocent bystander killed by a political sneak attack on another issue.
Gov. Parris Glendening vetoed the measure because of an amendment tacked onto it in the waning minutes of the last legislative session. That amendment, sponsored by East Baltimore's Sen. Perry Sfikas, would have banned so-called mega-bars in a wide swath of his district. Although a case can be made for some limits on these bars, the Sfikas measure was far too broad. The governor was correct in vetoing it, but the small blow struck at the Liquor Board's disgraceful role as a political grab bag was a casualty as well.
Sen. John A. Pica Jr. led the drive to kill his own bill because of the Sfikas amendment. It wasn't much of a bill, because it just nibbled at the potentially dangerous weaknesses of Baltimore's liquor law enforcement. Things are so bad there that it took legislation to stop liquor-law enforcement officers from soliciting political contributions. But the problems at the Liquor Board run far deeper.
The 33 full- and part-time Liquor Board inspectors are patronage employees (as are the board members themselves). There isn't even any pretense about the fact they are named by the city's senators, not the board. Senator Pica himself placed a paid campaign worker on the liquor-law enforcement staff (as well as his campaign manager on the board itself). Telling political cronies like that not to sell tickets to bull roasts or otherwise serve their mentor's interests is like imploring children with money in their pockets not to spend it on junk food.
Just because Senator Pica's bill didn't go nearly far enough is no reason not to mourn its failure. It was, if nothing else, a start. He says he will ask the board to follow the failed bill's injunctions anyway. A lot more than that needs to be done. Enforcement of the liquor laws is a very sensitive task, one that should not be entrusted to a collection of political hacks. An advisory committee, named by Senator Pica after an article in The Evening Sun described the board's politics-ridden operations, made some other recommendations for cleaning it up. They should all be adopted.
However, the committee inexplicably failed to make the most obvious and necessary recommendation, abolishing the patronage system for board employees. Few large cities in the country still permit untrained, virtually unsupervised patronage workers to enforce their liquor laws. The present situation is a scandal waiting to happen (if it hasn't already). The city's senators should rid themselves of this system before it explodes in their faces.