Complaints about city drinking establishments get no action from officials whose job is to monitor them, neighbors say.

Internal dissension hobbles enforcement by liquor board

July 30, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Theresa Preston is fed up with the sideshow that unfolds in front of the Washington Street tavern, a hangout for rowdies in her East Baltimore neighborhood. Loiterers purchase liquor in the tavern and stand outside and drink it. They curse, panhandle and urinate in public.

Last year, Preston and her neighbors took their complaints to the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners, the state agency that enforces liquor laws in the city. But the agency, which has been torn by internal bickering and corruption allegations, has done virtually nothing to help.

Others have also gone to the board and gotten the runaround.

Those include the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, which has asked the board to sanction a bar cited twice in recent years for illegal liquor purchases.

And South Baltimore residents who complain about a bar with raucous live bands.

And Patterson Park homeowners who say they are losing sleep because of a bar manager who plays loud music and allows patrons to loiter.

The board monitors about 1,400 liquor establishments in the city. It's staffed with a team of inspectors, and it can levy fines or close chronic offenders. But critics say the agency is not fulfilling its mission.

"The liquor board is not enforcing license requirements," Preston said. "There don't seem to be any rules."

Board Chairman Mark S. Fosler concedes that internal problems have hurt the board's ability to do its job, and he has promised reform.

"I don't want to pretend that it is going to be blue skies and sunshine," he said. "But I think we will be turning some corners for the good, and we will be more responsive."

The board has been racked by dissention in recent months. In April, chief liquor inspector Samuel T. Daniels Jr. filed a lawsuit charging two commissioners with political collusion and corruption. He took legal action after he was suspended for conducting investigations and speaking to the press without proper approval.

Daniels also accused state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of trying to get him fired so her husband, a liquor inspector who works with Daniels, could get his job. Conway denied any involvement.

In June, the city's labor commissioner partially vindicated Daniels when he ruled that the inspector had been unfairly suspended. Daniels eventually dropped the lawsuit.

Still, his charges deepened existing splits on the board. Then-commissioners Claudia L. Brown and John A. Green Jr. accused Fosler of going behind their backs to initiate investigations of problem bars. They also accused Fosler of conspiring with Daniels. Fosler blamed Brown and Green for holding up board reform.

This month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. re-appointed Fosler to serve a second term as board chairman, a part-time job that pays $18,500 a year. He also replaced Brown and Green with Jeffrey B. Pope, a software engineer, and Edward Smith Jr., a Baltimore attorney. Each will earn $18,000 a year.

Fosler said he hopes the new members will get along better.

"I hope we can just get on with the business we have to do and enforce the laws we have to enforce," Fosler said when he was sworn in July 21.

Enforcement is what Preston and her neighbors have been after for close to two years. But the board has continued to renew the liquor license for Washington Street tavern owner Kiff Kim - although its records show it knew he was violating liquor laws.

Kim's license requires him to sell and serve liquor inside the tavern. Instead, Kim sells bottles of beer and spirits over the counter as if he were operating a package goods store. Liquor board inspector Ed Owens visited the tavern March 2, 2004, and noticed that although the tavern had a small counter, there was "no patron service," according to board documents.

The tavern is at 435 N. Washington St., about a block east of Johns Hopkins Hospital and near a planned $1 billion biotechnology park that is expected to reinvigorate the area. Kim told a Sun reporter he wants to "upgrade" the tavern to appeal to the professionals the biotech center is expected to bring. He recently had the building's exterior painted and trash cleared from the rooftop.

"I do care about my neighborhood, too," said Kim, who lives in Ellicott City.

Meanwhile, loiterers continue to gather. Kim said he will admit people to the bar if they ask, but when a reporter visited the tavern recently, the door to the bar was locked. An employee said the bar was closed. Kim said that the employee was wrong and that he would correct him.

Preston and her neighbors are tired of waiting for change and tired of spending countless hours organizing petition drives and protests that seem to go nowhere with the liquor board.

"They [the liquor board] have made these rules into a jigsaw puzzle," said Dr. Patrick Tong, a pediatric ophthalmologist who lives near the tavern and has worked with Preston. "There have been so many breaches of the law that I do not understand how this license could be renewed."

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