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Maryland governor would lose Baltimore Liquor Board power if this bill passes

The state Senate approved legislation Thursday that could strip the governor of the authority to appoint members to Baltimore's liquor board.

The bill would require the mayor and Baltimore City Council to select the board's commissioners if Gov. Larry Hogan doesn't appoint new members by the end of the General Assembly session April 11.

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Members of the board — who serve two-year terms and are responsible for enforcing laws and regulations at liquor stores, bars and restaurants across the city — have been selected in Annapolis since the 1930s. The legislation being considered by the General Assembly would shift that power to Baltimore through 2018.

The Senate refused last week to confirm commissioners who were nominated by Hogan and have served since last summer. The Republican governor has said he will not submit new names for lawmakers' consideration, leaving the long-troubled board unsettled.

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It is unclear how the House of Delegates will react to the legislation. Baltimore lawmakers in that chamber planned to review the proposal at a meeting Friday morning in Annapolis, according to Del. Curt Anderson, a city Democrat.

If the House approves it, the liquor board could be vacant during a crucial time for license renewals.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she pushed it forward because Hogan has refused to withdraw his original nominees, despite city senators' opinion that they have made bad decisions that tilt in favor of liquor license holders at the expense of communities.

"That's his prerogative," Conway said. "He's the governor."

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Gov. Larry Hogan doesn't plan on nominating any new members to Baltimore's liquor board, even as lawmakers push forward a plan that would require him to do so.

Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark said the governor had nothing more to say on the issue Thursday.

Douglass Mayer, another Hogan spokesman, said Tuesday that the governor "believes the individuals that he put forward are well-qualified and deserve to be approved."

Hogan's appointees — Benjamin Neil, Douglas Trotter and Elizabeth Hafey — are expected to be voted down Monday by the Senate Executive Nominations Committee.

Liquor board alternate member Harvey Jones — who is Conway's campaign treasurer — was on a path to be confirmed, but Hogan withdrew his name earlier this month.

The city liquor board has a history of problems. The commissioners Hogan appointed last July were just the latest to draw the ire of community members.

A 2013 state audit found the board had no written rules and an inconsistent inspection process.

City senators block Hogan liquor board nominees, demand replacements

Board members have said they're trying to correct problems, including rewriting the rules and holding town hall meetings to explain the changes.

But some city residents say the liquor board isn't tough enough on problem bars, and that the board's decisions often favor liquor establishments over neighborhood residents.

They've pointed to a decision to allow the Stadium Lounge in Waverly to reopen last summer after serving 71 days of a six-month suspension handed down by the previous liquor board. Stadium Lounge was suspended for having illegal slot machines.

If Conway's bill is passed by the House, Hogan would be required to nominate new liquor board members within 15 days. If he fails to do so, the power to appoint members would go to the mayor and City Council.

The Senate voted 43-2 to approve the bill.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller voted for it, but called it a "bad bill." He said he wished it weren't necessary.

"It's a bad answer to a problem that cries out for a solution," he said.

Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, blamed Hogan, who stuck by his original appointees after Baltimore's senators opposed them unanimously.

"It's just a matter of stubborn pride," Miller said.

From left, Becky Witt, attorney at the Community Law Center; liquor board Chairman Benjamin Neil; Commissioner Elizabeth Hafey; and Commissioner Douglas Trotter.
From left, Becky Witt, attorney at the Community Law Center; liquor board Chairman Benjamin Neil; Commissioner Elizabeth Hafey; and Commissioner Douglas Trotter. (Sarah Meehan / Baltimore Sun)

Miller said that senators were compiling a list of candidates for the governor to consider.

The two dissenting votes Thursday came from Republicans.

Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey, from the Eastern Shore, said Hogan's team did not aggressively court Republican senators to vote "no" on the bill.

Absent guidance from the governor, most Republicans treated the bill as a matter of local courtesy, deferring to the wishes of the senators from Baltimore.

Becky Witt, an attorney with the Community Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks liquor board issues, said she didn't know whether the city's leaders would do a better job in selecting liquor board members than the governor.

The current members' terms will end once they are voted down by the Senate, or when the General Assembly adjourns at midnight April 11. If new members are not appointed, Witt said, the city will not have a functioning liquor board.

April is a crucial month for the liquor board, Witt said, because liquor licenses are renewed on May 1 each year. Residents and community groups are protesting the renewal of several liquor licenses, and public hearings are usually held in April so the board can make decisions before May 1.

If there are no liquor board members available to hold hearings and make decisions on the contested renewals, Witt said, some bars and restaurants will not be able to sell alcohol beginning May 1.

"The everyday business of the board will come to a stop if there's no replacements," Witt said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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