Liquor and politics don't mix

May 16, 1994

Once upon a time Baltimore City had sidewalk inspectors, bridge tenders and lots of other undemanding jobs filled by political stalwarts whose principal qualification was loyalty to a particular leader. Most of those jobs have disappeared in the last two decades, but the liquor inspectors linger on as one of the last vestiges of old-fashioned ward politics. But they are not just an anachronism. The system leaves the enforcement of liquor laws to a posse of part-time, untrained political minions whose fealty is owed to a politician, not to the public. Some collect campaign funds for their political protectors from the same taverns and liquor stores they are supposed to be regulating. It's hard to imagine a more objectionable way to police a sensitive business such as liquor sales.

What's more, as disclosed in the news columns last week, the system is grossly inefficient. Liquor inspectors in other cities are responsible for many times more licensed establishments than in Baltimore. Those inspectors are usually given special training. Often they are college graduates. Most are hired through civil service examinations. In Baltimore the liquor inspectors need only one qualification: delivering votes, campaign funds or both to a state senator or perhaps the governor.

It's hard to imagine a more open invitation to corruption. Liquor sales and politics don't mix well. In fact there is already a criminal investigation under way of the Baltimore liquor board, arising in part from records seized during the Maryland State Police raid on The Block in January. Whether that investigation produces criminal charges or not, the liquor inspection system needs drastic change -- not a study committee, as proposed by Sen. John A. Pica, Jr. That's a transparent device to get the issue off the front page at least until after the November election. There must be a commitment now to real reform, before voters make their choices for a new state government.

That could be accomplished by replacing the 33 full- and part-time inspectors with a smaller, trained squad of administrative investigators. They do not need to be fully trained police, but they must be more than a rag-tag bunch of political minions, each responsible for a handful of bars and liquor stores. Since qualified investigators in some other cities are responsible for more than 10 times as many establishments, an adequate squad here would cost no more. The change would pay off not just in greater efficiency but also as insurance against the strong possibility of corrupt regulation.

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