Tomorrow, the task force commissioned by the General Assembly to study the efficacy of state alcohol regulations will meet for the first time. As residents who have spent hundreds of hours navigating the alcohol beverage code attempting to rid our neighborhoods of troublesome bars, we welcome this potential for reform; in fact, we feel it’s critical to stem the violence in our city. These laws have for far too long disproportionately protected business interests at the expense of the public good.
The task force meeting falls the day before the Baltimore City Liquor Board will take up a case of yet another problem bar, one with six new violations since appearing before the liquor board in April. According to the police, this bar has cost taxpayers over $60,000 in dedicated police resources; it was implicated in a homicide last year and a shooting last month, and it has been the focus of hundreds of 911 calls. Yet when residents brought this bar before the liquor board last spring, board members had no knowledge of its problems, claiming there were no reports in its files documenting its history despite testimony from residents, elected officials and police officers — one of whom indicated that this location was the, “the most dangerous in the Northern District.”
The fact that there wasn’t a paper trail in the liquor board’s files left residents and elected officials scratching their heads, asking what went wrong. How could an establishment that was so front and center on everyone’s minds fly under the liquor board’s radar?
Far from a fluke, this case epitomizes the liquor board’s business-as-usual approach and the profound breakdown in the city’s ability to hold problem alcohol establishments accountable when they operate illegally, victimize area residents and denigrate surrounding neighborhoods. We believe the breakdown is caused by a system relying too heavily on the community to document and intervene when the responsibility should fall squarely on the liquor board, the state regulatory body designated with primary oversight of all alcohol establishments in the city.
Other regulatory agencies responsible for performing health-related inspections don’t require residents to petition them before they shutter a business for illegal operations. Imagine if the same burdens placed on citizens living near non-compliant liquor establishments were placed on citizens to close unsafe restaurants or day care facilities. Yet for liquor establishments, most of the time, local citizens are required to collect signatures, organize, write letters, file timely paperwork, hire lawyers, take time off work, find babysitters, pay for parking and sit through hearings for hours to protect people from being endangered by the bad practices of a non-compliant liquor establishment.
Even when community members undertake all these actions, their efforts are often fruitless. The liquor establishment keeps its privileges and residents are asked to sign a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the business to try to keep it in compliance. Consider for a moment what would happen if this were the approach that our city took to prevent children from being harmed by a day care facility that violated a fire safety code or the approach to protect the public from restaurants that routinely failed food safety inspections.
Whether it’s a breakdown in agencies reporting information to the liquor board, misinformation regarding the phone number residents must call to document the problem (311 vs. 911) or the board’s own inspection processes not tracking the most pertinent information, standards for how the city’s liquor establishments operate and how we hold them accountable must change — and the time is now.
With the mayor’s Violence Reduction Initiative, we’re optimistic she’s as committed as we are to advocate for change to our city’s alcohol laws to address violence caused in and around alcohol establishments.
We are asking city and state leadership for thoughtful reforms as they embark on the task force effort. We need a new standard for accountability for liquor establishments, one that rewards good operators and removes bad ones. One that takes the burden off residents and places it on the Liquor Board and liquor establishments. One that more closely aligns with the way other regulatory agencies conduct their work. We request our city and state leaders recognize the harm liquor establishments can inflict on communities and establish appropriate and fair monitoring and processing procedures that hold liquor establishments accountable when they repeatedly cause harm and foster violence in our city.
KunSun Sweeley (email@example.com) is co-president of the Waverly Improvement Association. Roxane Prettyman (Roxane.Prettyman@ssa.gov) is vice president of the Western District Community Relations Council. Pat Lundberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association. Janet Eveland, a member of the 46th District Baltimore city Democratic State Central Committee, also contributed to this op-ed.