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New city liquor board to take office

The Baltimore Sun

Three new commissioners are poised to take over the city liquor board, a state agency that has been embroiled in controversy in recent years, including review by the state prosecutor and ouster of its executive secretary, a former state senator who battled with past commissioners.

The board regulates the sale, storage and distribution of alcoholic beverages in Baltimore. Its new commissioners, Stephan Fogleman, Elizabeth C. Smith and Harvey Jones, met with Gov. Martin O'Malley before their appointments were confirmed recently by the state Senate. They said the governor charged them with "restoring the public's trust" in the agency.

Fogleman, an attorney who unsuccessfully challenged Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy in last year's Democratic primary, is expected to serve as board chairman. A swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, the same day as the commission's first hearing. The new commissioners replace the ones who served under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was defeated by O'Malley.

Critics of the old board accused it of rendering uneven decisions and displaying rude behavior toward bar and restaurant owners.

Fogleman said that there could be some staff changes at the liquor board, which still has remnants from the days when it was ruled by political patronage.

Today, liquor inspectors are civil servants and they must pass an exam to qualify for employment. However, a large number of liquor inspectors are holdovers from the past when city senators helped them get jobs at the agency. There are eight part-time inspectors who are paid $1,200 a year for occasional work. Those jobs could be altered.

"I think there will be some redefinition of duties in the future," said Fogleman, who left open the possibility that there would be a review of liquor board regulations, some of which haven't been revised in nearly 30 years.

In addition, Fogelman said, he wants to reconsider proposed legislation that would make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to enter a city bar, and revive an advisory committee made up of community members and licensees.

Smith and Jones, the other two board members, say they are eager to start at the liquor board.

Smith is a part-time law student who works for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Jones is a code enforcement officer with the city housing authority.

"I think our goals are similar," said Smith of her colleagues. "I don't think that the governor would have put together a group of dysfunctional, lone gunmen. ... For me, it's all about being fair, and I think that's also something that we have in common."

Jones said his experience dealing with community members, business owners and politicians, will help hearings run smoothly.

"I've worked with those communities so I know how to communicate with them," said Jones, who was recommended for the position by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat. Conway's husband, Tim, is a liquor inspector.

Smith and Fogleman were nominated by Sen. Lisa Gladden and Sen. George W. Della Jr., respectively.

Senators who represent the city take turns picking liquor board commissioners, selections that are in turn reviewed by the governor and voted upon by the full Senate.

The past two years have been trying ones for the liquor board. The Office of the State Prosecutor initiated an investigation of the agency in August 2005 after then-chief liquor inspector, Samuel T. Daniels Jr., charged liquor board officials and state senators of collusion and corruption. The inquiry wrapped up in December without any criminal charges.

During this same period, liquor board commissioners dismissed former Executive Secretary Nathan C. Irby Jr., a former state senator and city councilman. Although Irby filed a lawsuit to get his job back, he eventually agreed to leave with $56,344 in lost salary and benefits.

Daniels took over for Irby and worked with former Commissioners Mark S. Fosler, Edward Smith Jr. and Jeffrey B. Pope to correct some administrative problems, including spotty inspection records. However, some bar and restaurant owners complained that Edward Smith and Pope were too harsh and at times rude.

"We have had the benefit of seeing what works and what doesn't work," Daniels said. "I would guess that we had twice the number of appeals under this past commission, and it was not just a function of fines."

Not long after Daniels was appointed executive secretary, Fosler, who had served as board chairman, resigned to take on a full-time job as a liquor inspector. Fosler now answers to Daniels.

Edward Smith and Pope were not re-appointed.

Edward Smith, a defense attorney, predicted his ouster after O'Malley won the November election. Smith filed a complaint against the new governor and several state senators in city Circuit Court in January to try to stop it.

In his complaint, Smith argued that his appointment was good until 2008. He also accused defendants of "padding" the liquor board with "patronage jobs in which no work to little work was accomplished."

Although court records show that the lawsuit is still valid, an assistant attorney general handling the case said he expects it to be withdrawn.

Smith could not be reached for comment as he is traveling outside the country.

"I'm not sure how serious he was about the lawsuit, but we had to take it seriously," said Assistant Attorney General William Brockman, who represents elected officials in the case. "We didn't want it to interrupt with the appointment of the new commissioners."

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