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City senators block Hogan liquor board nominees, demand replacements

The conflict over the direction of the city liquor board deepened Monday as a Senate committee refused to confirm three of Gov. Larry Hogan's appointees as commissioner and a powerful senator introduced legislation that could force him to appoint new members.

Meanwhile, Hogan withdrew the name of his lone appointee as an alternate commissioner. That appointee, Harvey E. Jones, was the only one of the Republican governor's board appointees who had not drawn opposition from senators.

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Jones is known as a close political associate of Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who led the opposition to the other three appointees and who is sponsoring the legislation.

Conway, a member of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee, moved Monday to reject the three Hogan appointees, Benjamin Neil, Doug Trotter and Elizabeth Hafey. After a lengthy discussion, senators decided to postpone action until the panel's next meeting to give Hogan time to withdraw the appointments or come to an agreement with Baltimore's all-Democratic Senate delegation.

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City senators said their constituents are up in arms about the direction in which Hogan's appointees have taken the board.

"They say they're too business-friendly -- don't adequately respect the communities, the establishments serve," said Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden.

The delegation sent a letter to the committee unanimously opposing the governor's appointees, who have been making decisions in an acting capacity since Hogan appointed them last year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who earlier had said he had no problem with the governor's appointees, backed his senators once they made their opposition clear. Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said the dispute was a result of Hogan's failure to communicate with the city delegation and urged the governor to open discussions with them.

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"I'm sure the matter can be resolved amicably," he said.

Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark said the governor had named three "highly qualified candidates." He said one of them, Hafey, had been praised by Conway for her credentials.

"Yet, despite the strong resumes offered by Ms. Hafey and all of the appointees, the executive nominations committee chose to single out some members of the four-person board, politicizing the process," Clark said.

Nevertheless, Clark said the administration looks forward to working with the committee. He did not say what action the governor would take on the nominations.

Conway said she is adamant that the current Hogan appointees are unacceptable, and she took steps to block the governor from making new recess appointments that wouldn't pass Senate muster. Her bill would force Hogan to appoint new liquor board members before the session is over.

"As a courtesy to him, I'm saying – the Baltimore City Senate delegation is saying -- give us some new liquor commissioners," she said.  "But obviously, you know that didn't sit well with them."

Without her bill, Conway said, Hogan might wait to appoint new members until after the General Assembly finishes its 90-day session in April. Then they would get to serve until next year's General Assembly session, when senators would have a chance to review and confirm them -- or not.

"It's a way of trying to get him to appoint them before we leave session, so we can make a decision of whether they are appropriate," said Conway. She chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which will review the bill.

Conway said the liquor board members have made poor decisions that have left residents frustrated, including overturning decisions from the prior liquor board and shortening suspensions.

"Baltimore City is in an uproar over the decisions that they have been consistently making since they have been appointed by the governor," Conway said.

Conway said she's also considering changing the bill entirely so that it would take the liquor board appointment authority away from the governor and putting it in the hands of the mayor and City Council.

She said she has the votes to pass the bill, and if it's vetoed, "I have the votes to overturn it."

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat whose district includes the bar-heavy neighborhoods of Fells Point and Federal Hill, said he's heard from hundreds of constituents frustrated by the liquor board and its "pro-licensee" tilt.

"The perception of the liquor board is that it has not had a balanced approach to its decision-making process," he said.

When the liquor board appointees appeared before senators in a hearing a week ago, "I don't think they made their case fully to move forward," Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he would support changing the bill to give the liquor board appointment authority to the city. "I think, at this particular moment in time, it makes a lot of sense, given the fierce community opposition. Hopefully we can avoid this in the future by having a more locally-driven process," he said.

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