Task force to examine liquor board

May 13, 1994|By Eric Siegel and Scott Higham | Eric Siegel and Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writers

Amid reports of conflicts of interest at Baltimore's liquor board, a new citywide task force will determine whether state senators should scrap the patronage system that has driven the agency for more than 60 years.

A majority of Baltimore's nine state senators -- who have maintained the patronage system -- said yesterday that there should be some changes at the board.

The chairman of the city's Senate delegation said that the task force will study potential reforms and recommend whether employees of the board, who are political appointees, should be hired through a system like civil service.

"The purpose is to make recommendations that would strengthen or maintain public confidence in the board," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Democrat.

Several politicians said reforms are long overdue for the board.

"There's a need to remove this from the heavy hand of politics," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said. "Those who work for the board should be as far removed from politics as possible."

Sen. Nathan Irby Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said, "Improprieties have to be addressed."

JTC Those comments followed an article in The Sun detailing troubles at the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners, one of the last strongholds of political patronage in the city.

The state agency, which is the focus of a corruption probe by a city grand jury, is riddled with potential conflicts.

The board's three commissioners and 33 full- and part-time inspectors are selected by state senators. Board employees then regulate bars and restaurants that contribute to the senators' campaigns. Some employees even solicit campaign contributions from businesses they are assigned to regulate.

There are no job requirements for inspectors. There is no examination. The only qualification: connections to a state senator or the governor.

It's a system that's been scrapped by most major U.S. cities. The people who are responsible for changing the system in Baltimore: the city's state senators.

Mr. Pica said yesterday that he is selecting task force members, none with ties to the liquor industry. He said that he would name someone to chair the panel by Monday.

Aside from examining hiring practices at the board, Mr. Pica said, the panel will draft a code of ethics for inspectors and will study how boards in other cities enforce liquor laws and hire employees.

The panel's recommendations will be included in legislation introduced during the 1995 General Assembly session, he said.

Most of Baltimore's senators agreed yesterday on the need for change at the board.

"It shouldn't be politicized," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Democrat. "There's always a question mark about liquor licenses to begin with, and this would remove those questions."

"I think the system needs reform," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, another Democrat. "If senators are permitted to appoint liquor inspectors, theyshould not be politically affiliated with the legislators. They shouldn't be allowed to work for the senators. Either that, or let them be hired through the state system."

Two black senators said they supported reforms but questioned the timing.

"Now African-Americans are getting into a situation where we have this power, and they want to get rid of this," said Sen. Larry Young, a Democrat.

"This seems that the timing of the change comes when we are in a position of power to get these patronage jobs. Why didn't they get rid of this thing a long time ago?"

"I am against the patronage aspect of it," Mr. Irby said. "But this would have been fine 50 years ago. They should have gotten rid of it then. It seems they are changing rules in the middle of the stream."

Some of the city's senators said that the patronage system can work.

"The operation has to run honestly," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Democrat. "I don't think that is incompatible with having them appointed politically."

Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski said that reforms at the board might take time.

"This is a long-standing political plum, and the wheels of government turn very slowly," the Democrat said.

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