It's dirty business, but someone's got to do it

March 28, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THE BALTIMORE Board of Liquor License Commissioners has been back in the news lately.

It started with a brouhaha over a bill proposed by state Sen. Joan Carter Conway that would have hampered a city police task force in entering liquor establishments to see what's going on, who is there and what they might be doing that's not legal. Conway's bill would have made sure that the liquor board's inspectors - not the police - were the ones who do the inspecting.

At the end of the week, Conway thought better of her proposal and asked that it be sent back to committee. Translation: Let's kill that idea.

Now, Conway should know better than most that the liquor board's inspectors are not as aggressive enforcers of the law as cops are. Her husband, Vernon "Tim" Conway, is the deputy chief liquor inspector for the board, where he is paid more than $41,000 a year, which is more than a lot of cops earn, but I'd rather call a cop if I had a problem with a bar.

The bad news is that while Senator Conway might have killed her bill to cuff the cops, the liquor board and its corps of inspectors and a couple of professional administrators will survive as a bastion of political patronage.

Getting a job on the liquor board or as an inspector has practically nothing to do with knowledge of the liquor purveying industry. It has everything to do with whom you know, especially which state senator you know, because the city's Senate delegation makes the picks and even the governor does not dare to interfere on that turf.

So Senator Conway will continue to have a lot of influence on how the liquor board does its work. Thanks to that influence and her husband's role as a deputy chief inspector, she will continue to collect a fortune in campaign contributions from liquor interests. Baltimore's liquor stores and restaurants will not be better off for this arrangement. The opposite is likelier.

It is a dirty business. Conway's attempt to keep the Police Department out of it was hardly surprising.

Having said all this, I should now acknowledge that covering the liquor board was one of the most instructive and entertaining experiences of my early career at this newspaper more than 30 years ago. It taught me more about the politics of Baltimore than many other experiences.

I have known some fascinating chairmen of the board, including the current one, Leonard Skolnik, who is about to lose his job because - I'm told - Senator Conway didn't want him reappointed. He must've been doing too good a job.

The first chairman I knew was the late, one-time state Sen. Joseph Staszak, who chaired the board while he secretly owned a bar and might have gone to jail for that conflict if he hadn't been killed in a boating accident shortly after he pleaded guilty.

Another chairman was the late James McCully, a beneficiary of the political machine in South Baltimore, and a teetotaler. McCully stood tall, invariably dressed in a dark suit, not surprising since he was a funeral director. He always looked imperious, and I could never quite reconcile his appearance with what I learned to be one of his secret ambitions.

It was said that he wanted nothing more passionately than to be chief rider in the Boumi Temple's motorcycle squad.

One chairman was a close friend for a while. He was J.M. "Mike" Wyatt, another South Baltimore politician and former member of the House of Delegates. Wyatt and I spent considerable time together, partly because he was married into a family that was close to my wife's family.

Wyatt was a guest at our wedding in 1977 and attended the reception at the Belvedere Hotel. As we were leaving the hotel, Wyatt followed onto the sidewalk carrying a bottle of champagne and three glasses. A hotel functionary, fearing trouble with the authorities, dashed out to tell Wyatt he could not pour the bubbly outside. "Damn it," Wyatt blustered. "I am the chairman of the Baltimore City liquor board, and I'm licensing this sidewalk right now."

What bravado they all had.

None of them, as far as I could tell, took himself too seriously. They were all helped in their jobs in those days in the 1970s and early 1980s by an extraordinarily efficient administrator, Joseph Van Collom Jr.

Van knew where all the bodies were, and he had been there so long that he had no illusions - about the members of the board, the inspectors or whether the rules were being obeyed.

I used to mock Van Collom that the bars on The Block were breaking so many rules it was practically impossible to count them - from serving watered-down drinks, to all-nude dancing, to prostitution and so forth. And all of this was going on within spitting distance of the liquor board's office in a building at South and Baltimore streets.

He dared me to count them all. So we did. In fact, in 1972, I wrote a three-part series on The Block and its violations, and the liquor board and its see-no-evil attitude toward it all. To say that the series was no Block-buster would be an understatement. Historically, it was remembered for using a photo that showed the bare breasts of a dancer on The Block. That really infuriated people.

Van Collom was delighted by the series. Great stuff! He told me. You know what'll come of it? he howled. Nothing!

He was right, of course. Nothing did come of it. The Block goes on and so does the liquor board. How would Baltimore possibly get along without them? Probably very well, indeed.

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