The pro-liquor board

Did Larry Hogan just send the Baltimore liquor board back to its bad old ways?

Ever since Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he would be replacing all three members of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, community activists in the city have been worried. The board was for years notoriously ineffectual, but after a scathing 2013 audit, a package of reforms and, most importantly, new appointments by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, it had finally begun to crack down on establishments that threatened the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. The concern was that Mr. Hogan, a pro-business Republican, would appoint members who would be overly sympathetic to license owners' interests and not to those of the surrounding community. The case of the Stadium Lounge suggests those worries may be well founded.

Residents of the Waverly community have long viewed the Stadium Lounge as a problem bar. They complain of noisy patrons spilling out at closing time, vomiting on their steps and littering in their alleys. Since the bar began a seven-days-a-week package goods operation, they say loitering outside the lounge has been a problem starting a 6 a.m. and lasting into the night. Neighbors, some of whose homes are directly across the alley from the bar, tried to block the renewal of its license four years ago, and they finally managed to shut it down, at least temporarily, after police conducting a sting operation saw patrons getting payouts from five illegal slot machines inside. Police said they witnessed the bar's owner, Domingo Kim, attempt to hide cash from the gambling operation in his car.

When the liquor board heard the case against the Stadium Lounge in May, some dozens of people showed up to speak against it. Representatives of area neighborhood associations and City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke testified about long standing problems at the establishment and requested that the board revoke its license altogether. Then-board chairman Thomas Ward suggested suspending the bar's license for four months based solely on the liquor law violations related to the illegal gambling complaints, but the other two members of the board outvoted him, upping the penalty to 180 days and a $9,000 fine. Mr. Kim appealed the suspension in circuit court.

On July 1, Hogan appointee Benjamin Neil took over for Mr. Ward. Two weeks later, an attorney for Mr. Kim wrote to plead reconsideration of the suspension on the grounds that the penalty was an economic hardship. Presumably that was the point of the penalty, but nonetheless, Mr. Neil and the attorney, Frank V. Boozer Jr., entered a consent judgment in the suspension appeal on Friday, July 24, and the bar re-opened that weekend.

Mr. Neil provided no public notice that he was reconsidering the penalty. He heard no testimony from those who had lobbied for the bar's closure in the first place. If he consulted at all with the other two members of the board, he did so in private, not in a public meeting. And although the board's executive secretary provided Mr. Boozer with a list of those who had testified in May, the only notice neighbors got of what had happened was the reappearance of the bar's disruptive customers. The consent judgment requires that Mr. Kim enter a memorandum of understanding with the neighboring communities within 30 days, a laughable restriction given that an earlier agreement had failed to end the years of conflict between them. Ms. Clarke and others are questioning the legal basis for Mr. Neil's actions, but legal or not, the way the situation was handled was clearly wrong.

In general, we don't begrudge Mr. Hogan's effort to bring a more pro-business point of view to state government, but the extent to which he fails to balance that with an appreciation of the impact of Baltimore's over-saturation of liquor outlets was already apparent in his dispute with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about providing post-riot aid to liquor stores that are out of compliance with current zoning law. It is only through a vestige of an old patronage system that the city liquor board is controlled by the state in the first place. It is really an area where local views and concerns need to take precedence, and given the board's legacy as a rubber stamp for the liquor industry, it is not the place to impose a knee-jerk pro-business point of view. The board's activities are funded by the city government, and its members should be appointed locally as well. That reform was left out of the General Assembly's response to the 2013 audit, and legislators should correct that oversight when they return in January.

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