Liquor and politics don't mix

January 03, 1995

The task force that examined Baltimore City's tainted Liquor Board operations did a good job of treating symptoms. But it failed to deal with the underlying ailment. Nothing short of taking politics entirely out of the board's enforcement squad is a sufficient remedy for what ails the agency.

Whether or not criminal or unethical actions by board members or employees are eventually proven as a result of the Maryland State Police raid on The Block last winter, there is ample evidence that the even-handed enforcement of the liquor laws in Baltimore is polluted by politics. It's too much to expect that the three-member Liquor Board will ever be freed of politics, but there is no excuse for retaining the patronage system in the selection of its enforcement staff.

An advisory group appointed by Sen. John A. Pica Jr., chairman of the city's delegation, has made some good recommendations about professionalizing the board's staff of inspectors. Among them are requirements that they be high school graduates or the equivalent, get standardized training, work regular shifts, undergo drug testing and are subjected to the state ethics law.

So far, so good. The proposals actually illustrate just how deficient were the standards of the 33 full- and part-time inspectors who are supposed to enforce the liquor laws at bars, restaurants and stores. The jobs are patronage, pure and simple, for the city's nine state senators. The only qualification at present is fealty to one of the senators. There isn't even any subterfuge about what's going on. Though state law provides that the three (also politically appointed) board members shall pick the inspectors, in fact the senators name them directly.

Despite pointing all of this out, the task force inexplicably ducks the obvious question: Why not free liquor enforcement from politics and put the inspectors under the merit system? The advisory group simply comments that "it became clear" that public concerns about the board's operations wouldn't be satisfied by putting the inspectors under civil service. How all this became clear is not set forth in the report.

The liquor laws are among the most sensitive the state imposes. There has long been an aura of favoritism, or possibly even outright corruption, in the enforcement of these laws in Baltimore. Liquor inspectors are law enforcement officers. The public would not tolerate blatant political patronage in any other police activity, and there is no reason to continue tolerating it any longer in liquor law enforcement. Senator Pica has promised legislation to implement the task force's recommendations. He should not stop there. It's time to end the boondoggling -- if not worse -- in liquor law enforcement.

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