Committee votes to allow Ticketmaster fees

A City Council committee approved a bill Thursday that would allow companies such as Ticketmaster to continue to charge unlimited fees in selling tickets to events in Baltimore.

The council's finance committee voted 3-1 in favor of the bill, which would exempt Ticketmaster and other ticket sellers from Baltimore's long-standing anti-scalping law.

If approved by the full council next month, the bill would allow the ticket-selling companies to continue to charge unlimited user, service and "convenience" fees. But citizens would still be prohibited from adding to a ticket's face value when reselling it.

Councilmen Carl Stokes, William H. Cole IV and Edward Reisinger voted in favor of the bill. Councilman Bill Henry, who wanted the fees charged by Ticketmaster and other companies limited to $5 per ticket or 10 percent of a ticket's face value, voted against the measure. Councilman Warren Branch abstained.

The legislation — which Stokes said he sponsored as a temporary solution while the council works on permanent legislation — was a response to a ruling by Maryland's highest court, which last month struck down Ticketmaster's unpopular user fees in Baltimore. Ticketmaster and its owner, Live Nation, have declined to comment on the issue.

Stokes said the Ravens, Orioles and concert and entertainment venues asked for the bill, concerned that Ticketmaster and other ticket vendors might refuse to handle events in Baltimore. The legislation would exempt ticket sellers from a 1948 law that bars businesses and citizens from charging fees in excess of 50 cents on top of a ticket's stated price.

Cole said he's heard from many cultural venues in his district that rely on the ticket sellers. "They are terrified about what happens if we don't pass this stop-gap measure," Cole said.

But Henry said his constituents believe the fees amount to "price-gouging."

Andre Bourgeois, a 50-year-old Inner Harbor resident, filed suit against Ticketmaster and the Lyric Opera House in 2011 after being charged $12 in user fees on a $52 ticket to see Jackson Browne in 2009. His hope was that Ticketmaster would be forced to stop charging the fees for events in Baltimore — and to issue refunds to customers who have paid the charges.

According to his lawsuit, Ticketmaster takes in about $1 billion annually from user fees on $8 billion in ticket sales worldwide. The suit does not estimate how much of that comes from Baltimore.

In 2011, Ticketmaster owner Live Nation agreed to pay $22.3 million to customers to settle a class action lawsuit over fees in California.

If passed, Stokes said the legislation would be in effect only until November. By then, the council members will have had time to research and create a reasonable regulation on the fees, he said.

"The matter is a little more complicated than saying, '$2, that's all; $5, that's all; $10, that's all," Stokes said. "It affects and impacts the Lyric, the aquarium, the museums, the Hippodrome, as well as for-profit entities. ... We have agreed that we would do a temporary measure — very temporary — that would allow us time to speak to all of the issues."

Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, said she opposes the measure in part because it exempts corporations from a law that if violated by others constitutes a criminal offense.

"We should not have two separate standards for individuals and ticket vendors," she said.

Councilman James Kraft, who does not sit on the finance committee, said he's been inundated with emails from residents opposed to the bill.

"Every email I've received is from a constituent or a citizen of the city, saying, 'Are you crazy helping Ticketmaster?' " Kraft said.

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