Liquor Board accord forged Council, senator OK plan to make panel an appointed entity

September 25, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

After years of trying, the Howard County Council may soon rid itself of one of its most tedious duties -- administering the county's liquor laws.

A compromise fashioned by council members and state Sen. Martin G. Madden would create a separate liquor board while giving the council ultimate veto power over the board's decisions.

Howard is one of only three Maryland counties in which the governing body -- be it a county council or county commissioners -- also serves as the liquor board, charged with overseeing the approval, transfer and occasional revocation of liquor licenses.

Even though the Liquor Board meets only once or twice a month, it is a duty that Howard County Council members unanimously consider a burdensome and unnecessary part of their busy schedules.

They have lobbied for more than a decade for a new state law giving them the power to appoint a liquor board to take over the job.

"All five of us," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, "are convinced we want to get rid of it."

They just never could. Until, perhaps, now.

The break came in a meeting last Friday, when Drown and Councilman Charles C. Feaga -- both planning to leave the council next year -- made their case one final time to Madden, a Clarksville Republican who in the past has blocked the change.

Madden had long maintained that the council should be kept accountable for major liquor cases, such as last year's petition by the super store Total Beverage to build a liquor store in Columbia nearly the size of a football field.

The council, in its role as the Liquor Board, rejected that petition, to the delight of a coalition of liquor store owners and local Baptists fighting the store.

On Friday, to satisfy Madden's concern, Drown and Feaga, both Republicans, agreed to add a new wrinkle to the idea of an appointed Liquor Board: If anyone involved in a case objects to the decision of the new Liquor Board, that person can request that the council step in and review it.

The council would decide, by majority vote, whether to do so -- though both Drown and Feaga said the council might be reluctant to second-guess its own appointed board.

"The council can always make a policy of saying no and not taking that on very often," Feaga said.

Those involved in the case would have the right -- as they do now -- to appeal any Liquor Board decision to the Circuit Court.

Madden, who plans to the sponsor the bill to create the appointed Liquor Board, says the compromise "still ultimately holds the elected officials responsible."

A majority of the county's three state senators and a majority of its eight delegates must approve such legislation, in separate votes, before it will be taken up in Annapolis.

Earlier efforts to create an appointed Liquor Board died because of the opposition of Madden and fellow Republican Sen. Christopher J. McCabe of Ellicott City.

But McCabe may now join Madden in supporting the compromise reached last week. "It's really the contentious, big-ticket issues on which people need to be held accountable," he said.

One point of debate remains. The County Council members agree they would like to create an appointed board, but they disagree over who should do the appointing.

Most favor allowing the five council members to appoint members from their own districts, since that would allow them to keep close tabs on the board. The council endorsed such a system in a 4-to-1 straw vote last year.

The lone opponent was Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, who favors giving appointing authority to the county executive, who appoints members to all of the county's other boards and commissions.

Under either system, the council would vote to confirm the appointees. If that detail gets sorted out, the move to an appointed panel should have few opponents. Even the Howard County Licensed Beverage Association, which last year complained about an appointed board, is less concerned this year.

"The bottom line is everyone's a little afraid of change," said association President Bill Harrison. "However, it's a workable system in other counties."

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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