Liquor Board proposal on agenda Delegation to meet on 13 local bills

November 19, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Past and present members of the Howard County Council are joining forces in hopes of eliminating one of its more tedious chores, overseeing which county establishments can sell beer, wine and liquor.

But they can't agree on who should take over the job.

Tomorrow night, Howard's state delegation -- which includes two former council members -- begins considering 13 local bills, including one to allow county officials to appoint a Liquor Board.

At the 7: 30 p.m. hearing in the Howard building in Ellicott City, the delegation will also hear public comments on bills that would change county ethics rules, add a new fine for domestic abusers and give the council new power to restrict tobacco sales.

Local officials have talked about appointing members of the Liquor Board for years, but a similar bill died in deadlock a year ago -- a fact noted by frustrated supporters yesterday.

"I'm tired of running my head up against a wall," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, at a meeting yesterday morning.

The five members of the County Council now sit as the Liquor Board -- two nights a month on average -- approving licenses of the 176 bars, restaurants, liquor stores and clubs permitted to sell alcohol in Howard.

The board also decides whether to fine establishments, or suspend or revoke their liquor licenses, when they violate the law. No other Maryland county with charter government has its council members serving as its liquor board.

Howard County Council members call it an important but time-consuming task that could be relegated to a board of appointed citizens.

"I think all five of us would agree it's time to rid ourselves of the Liquor Board," said Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican who estimates he attends meetings, events and political functions four nights a week.

Much of the state delegation, including eight delegates and three senators, agrees. But there is disagreement -- which could prove fatal to the bill -- over how to appoint a new liquor board.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, an east Columbia Democrat and former councilwoman who is sponsoring the bill, favors having each council member nominate three members from his or her district.

The county executive would then appoint a member from each district, subject to approval by the council. Members of most county boards and commissions are appointed by the county executive and approved by the council.

"I thought there was some sort of a role for the executive because there's a check and balance that way," Pendergrass said. "I'm not sure how I'd feel without a check and balance."

But though council members want to give up Liquor Board tasks, they are reluctant to give up power over the membership of a new board.

In a straw vote yesterday morning, council members voted 4-1 for a system in which each would recommend a board member from his or her district. The council would then approve the nominees.

"It's not a complete letting go," said Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican. "We keep control."

Democratic Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of West Columbia, the current chairwoman of the Liquor Board, was the only council opponent of the plan. She said it amounted to a patronage system in which council members would handpick constituents for powerful, paying jobs.

"I don't see how in this day and age we can set up a complete political patronage system," Lorsung said.

Liquor Board members receive $50 for each meeting. The chairman receives $55 for each meeting.

For council members, that is in addition to annual salaries of $28,900 for council members and $29,900 for the council chairman. Council members also comprise the county's Zoning Board and receive $100 for each of that board's meetings and $50 for its work sessions.

The difference in the appointment systems may seem minor, but disagreement last year helped kill the bill.

A majority of the county's delegates and senators must approve a local bill -- meaning one affecting Howard County only -- for it to go to the General Assembly for consideration.

A bill to change the Liquor Board's makeup passed the delegates last year, but state Sens. Christopher J. McCabe and Martin G. Madden, both Republicans, opposed it. One will have bTC to switch his vote for it to pass this time. McCabe said he is unlikely to vote for the bill unless the council members support it unanimously.

The other 12 local bills under consideration by the county's state delegation would:

* Require applicants in Zoning Board cases to disclose any business dealings with council members. This bill, by Pendergrass, would attempt to clarify ethical issues, such as those faced by Feaga last winter when he voted on a zoning matter that affected developers who also had an option to buy his family farm.

* Give the County Council the power to restrict the sale of tobacco, including through vending machines.

* Allow a new type of liquor license specially tailored to golf courses.

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