Senators aim at bar oversight Bill to 'clean up' board in Baltimore is backed

March 20, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Despite fierce opposition from two Baltimore senators, the state Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would move most city liquor inspectors from a patronage appointment system to a merit system.

The measure is seen as a first step to reforming operation of the city's liquor board, which oversees and licenses Baltimore bars.

The three-member board and its 29 inspectors, 18 of whom work full time, are political appointees of the city senators.

The bill would put the full-time inspectors under the city's civil service system.

Some inspectors have been accused of carrying out favors for bar owners or legislators that were regarded as unethical -- including pressuring the owners of bars they inspect to contribute to senators' political campaigns.

"We're trying to clean up our own act," Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat and the Senate majority leader, told the Senate during debate on the bill.

Added bill sponsor Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, also a Baltimore Democrat: "The perception is the liquor inspectors serve two masters" -- the city and the senators who appoint them. "We need to remove them from the patronage system."

But Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, and Democratic Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, whose district includes portions of the city and Baltimore County, argued that making the inspectors civil service employees could make it harder to fire them if they violated laws or ethical standards.

The two senators -- creating an unusual floor fight with members of their own delegation -- said the civil service system would give more protections and benefits to the inspectors, who they said don't deserve such rewards.

They said many of the 18 full-time inspectors often work fewer than four hours a day while being paid $19,900 a year.

Under the civil service system, the inspectors would be given sick leave, holidays, personal leave, annual leave and pensions, Bromwell said.

The inspectors also would have the right to a hearing if they faced termination on any charge, which Bromwell and Della argued would help bad employees stay on the job.

"I know that there are problems on the liquor board," Bromwell said. "I just think we're going in the wrong direction on this. How can we put these people in the civil service system? They will be in the system forever."

Della contended it is better to keep the inspectors as political appointees so that senators can fire them at will.

When it was clear that they could not defeat the bill on its merits, Bromwell and Della tried without success to add amendments that would have broadened the legislation to move all of the liquor board appointees into the civil service system.

Such amendments would likely have led to the bill's defeat because they proposed changes more sweeping than most senators are willing to take on this year.

City senators said during debate yesterday that questions about the board's ethics have prompted recent inquiries by the state's special prosecutor and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Most of the city senators say they hope eventually to move the entire liquor board under the civil service system.

"This is reform that the community groups and neighborhoods have called for," said Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

The Senate is expected to give final approval to the bill as early as tomorrow.

The measure would then go to the House, where similar legislation has been successful.

Still, Della promises that he will continue to work to defeat the bill before it reaches the governor's desk. "Oh, it's not over with," Della said. "Don't think it's over."

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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