Mediation with liquor licensees a good idea

In her recent commentary, Community Law Center lawyer Becky Lundberg Witt raises objections to proposed legislation which would provide a sensible option in license renewal cases where there is community opposition (“Mandatory liquor license mediation harmful to Baltimore and its residents,” Feb. 9). In the past, often with Ms. Witt’s assistance, community members aggrieved by the manner in which a tavern or liquor store is operated appeared at renewal hearings with anecdotal claims of various health and safety problems. Their expectation was that the liquor board should refuse to renew a license that they challenged, thus putting some other member of their community out of business. The board has been rightly concerned that the protesters’ complaints about noise, parking, congestion, security, clean-up, etc. could have been addressed before they demanded the ultimate penalty. But the current law does not provide that option. So, the board was left to balance those complaints against the licensee’s continued livelihood. We believe that the proposed mediation alternative would help businesses and communities work together to improve the operation of these establishments.

Ms. Witt claims that the liquor board’s goal is to foist its responsibilities upon frightened citizen neighbors. She knows better than that. Many of our Baltimore communities have active and engaged organizations which represent the collective interests of their members. They often submit comments on liquor board cases and frequently appear to voice support or opposition. The legislation is aimed at engaging them earlier in the renewal process so that the types of issues causing concern in their neighborhoods may be discussed with the licensees and, hopefully, reasonable accommodation can be achieved. The Community Law Center could be helpful in facilitating this process on a year-round basis to avoid the “logistical nightmare” envisioned by Ms. Witt. Even if mediation fails to resolve all the problems, the process will bring communities and business operators together in productive discussion of the issues and perhaps limit the issues that require intervention by the board, saving everyone needless anxiety.

It is not the liquor board’s intention to “patronize” community members or to add to their “safety concerns, “ as charged by Ms. Witt. Our experience has been that community representatives and liquor licensees frequently resolve their differences with memoranda of understanding, and the terms of those agreements become limitations on the liquor license, subject to control by the board. Without such mediated agreements, we have little authority to intervene in the details of daily operations, absent conduct rising to the level of rule violations. This process has proven valuable to all concerned.

I don’t know what Ms. Witt is referring to when she charges the board with “historic failure to do its job” and “treating community members like inconveniences.” It sounds like grievances from another era. The liquor board since mid-2016 has attempted to work with the Baltimore communities in a transparent way to improve the operation of the establishments licensed by it. Our staff is helpful to all concerned and capable of assisting those with language barriers or inexperience in the liquor industry. We are cooperating with Mayor Catherine Pugh’s initiatives to reduce violence in troubled areas of our city. We conduct our hearings fairly and according to standard administrative practices.

The proposed legislation will assist us in better performing our work. To quote Ms. Witt, “mediation can be a very helpful tool.” We agree and we are hopeful that the General Assembly will as well.

Albert J. Matricciani Jr., Baltimore

The writer is chair of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City.

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