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The new sheriff in town [Editorial]

For those who despaired that Baltimore's chronically dysfunctional and highly political liquor board was owned lock, stock and beer barrel by the industry and that reversing the damage the board's lax approach to enforcement has done to neighborhoods was a pipe dream, we give you the 87-year-old cure to this particular disease: Judge Thomas Ward.

As recently chronicled by The Sun's Luke Broadwater and Yvonne Wenger, the former city circuit court judge has proven himself a revelation. Since taking over as head of the liquor board, he's established that there's a new sheriff in town — one who takes violations of liquor laws seriously and doesn't simply accommodate liquor licensees.

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We had doubts about whether such a crackdown would ever take place even after the General Assembly passed a package of reforms earlier this year. But the numbers don't lie: In three months time, Judge Ward and the new board have closed or revoked the licenses of eight bars and liquor stores and found 119 guilty of violations, which is more than three times as many as the same period a year ago under the previous board.

We don't rejoice in the thought that this means some small business owners have suffered financially as a result of these stepped up enforcement efforts, but frankly, they only have themselves to blame. Not only has Baltimore experienced a problem with antisocial (and worse) behavior on the sidewalks outside bars and liquor stores, but the presence of so many dispensaries in poor neighborhoods poses a broader concern. Studies have shown a strong correlation between the presence of such establishments and violent crime and poor health.

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But what was truly the final straw came last year when legislative auditors detailed just how bad a job the liquor board has been doing. Paperwork was missing, inspectors weren't being held accountable and the state agency lacked guidelines and procedures. As a result, bar owners had little expectation of any serious discipline if they were found to be violating the law. How could they? The board didn't spell out what the consequences would be.

It's no surprise that some license holders are upset by the changes, given how accommodating the liquor board has been in the past. But when the owner of a Fells Point restaurant and bar is told by an inspector that a scheduled boxing match at his business would be illegal and then conducts the event anyway, the public's sympathies are going to be limited and deservedly so. Holding a liquor license is a privilege, not a birthright.

If, however, aggrieved license holders can prove that the new board is being inconsistent in its handling of violations, whether that involves bars or so-called "zombie" licenses (those left unused for long periods of time until suddenly resurrected), that's another matter. We would expect the board to be even-handed in its approach, and we suspect that as an experienced jurist, Judge Ward has strong feelings on equality under the law, too.

It's too early to tell whether the corner has been turned and the city liquor board is the serious, transparent and modernized regulatory agency that Baltimore needs, but the early numbers are encouraging. If this city hopes to grow, if it wants to gain the 10,000 more families that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has famously set as a goal, then it must reduce crime and improve the quality of life. Stricter enforcement of liquor laws would be a step in that direction.

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We would be more confident that this effort will continue if liquor board appointments did not continue to rest in the hands of the city's state senators. Using these jobs as political patronage — as a plum for supporters — has clearly been part of the problem of the past. The opportunity for interference in enforcement remains a concern.

Still, it's easy to have faith in a board chairman who appears to have little trouble distinguishing between right and wrong. "Somewhere along the line, you've gotten the idea that you can do what you want," Judge Ward lectured that Fells Point licensee who saw nothing wrong in staging an amateur boxing event. "You can't." That sounds pretty good to us, sheriff.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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