Liquor board sworn in

Commissions had ended

members told of discretion in license transfer


The three members of Baltimore's liquor board rushed to City Hall yesterday for a hasty swearing-in ceremony after learning that their commissions had expired Monday night at the close of the 2006 General Assembly.

Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway shuffled his schedule and performed the ceremony, which finished roughly an hour before the board's regularly scheduled meeting. "They called my office in a panic," Conaway said of the liquor board officials.

The members' commissions, which were never confirmed by the Senate, expired at midnight Monday. And although Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reappointed Chairman Mark S. Fosler and Commissioners Edward Smith Jr. and Jeffrey B. Pope on Tuesday, the swearing-in ceremony, a necessary formality, had been overlooked.

Once they had been sworn in, the board members reviewed a letter of counsel from the state attorney general's office regarding their possible mishandling of licenses that are pending transfer.

Smith, a lawyer in private practice, dismissed the findings in the letter. "I give advice," he said. "Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad and sometimes it's indifferent."

Guided by Smith's interpretation of the law, the board has killed several licenses because they had not been transferred within 180 days.

The swearing-in ceremony was especially gratifying for Smith and Fosler, who were targeted in January for ouster by six senators from the city. The senators were displeased because Smith, in particular, wanted to terminate the liquor board's then-Executive Secretary Nathan C. Irby Jr. Irby was fired March 24 but is trying to get his job back.

Ehrlich, who backs Fosler and Smith, responded to the senators' attack by withdrawing the commissioners' nominations, thereby saving them from dismissal. But as a result, none of the commissioners were confirmed by the Senate - that included Pope, who was nominated by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat.

Smith made light of his precarious position yesterday, joking that the governor also wanted to remove him from the board. Pretending to read from a letter from Ehrlich, Smith said: "Dear Mr. Smith, you've committed enough havoc. Goodbye, the governor."

Smith, a defense attorney with a quick temper, has dedicated himself to cleaning up alleged corruption at the state agency, which oversees about 1,400 liquor establishments in the city.

He has cracked down on dormant licenses, including those that are pending transfer. Some critics, including the state senator who authored the law, argue that the "pending transfer" status protects the licenses from expiration under state statute.

In a letter presented yesterday to the board and reviewed by The Sun, an assistant attorney general advised that the law does not mandate the termination of a license if it has not been transferred within 180 days. Attorney Gerald Langbaum told the board members that it was up to their "discretion to determine the consequence in the event that a transfer is not completed within 180 days."

Yesterday, the board considered Langbaum's advice, which is not binding. During a hearing regarding a license that had been pending transfer for more than nine months, Smith said, "We have the discretion." Then, he voted along with the two other commissioners to give a licensee more time to complete the transfer.

Questioned about the letter, Fosler, the board's chairman, said it helped to clarify the intent of the 180-day law, which was authored by Sen. George W. Della Jr.

The law, which was passed in 1999, mandates that licenses that have been dormant for more than 180 days without an extension be voided. Della has said that his intent was to cut down on licenses in the city that had been sitting unused and to put an end to license brokering.

Della could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in a recent interview, he said he never intended his bill to affect licenses that were pending transfer.

Fosler couldn't say whether the board had made any incorrect decisions regarding licenses pending transfer in recent months. He said the advice from the attorney general's office would prevent trouble.

"We are going to require people to show some proof, photos or documents, that show that something is happening," he said.

In the past, board administrators have asked licensees to provide documentation that they were making progress toward opening their bar or restaurant. But in some cases, licenses were allowed to languish for years as long as licensees paid annual renewal fees.

Fosler said yesterday that those days are over, adding, "There will be more accountability now."

In other action, the board announced the creation of a Community Advisory Committee, a panel of 20 residents who will work with the liquor board to revise liquor laws and monitor bar activity in neighborhoods.

Board members appointed Canton resident Leigh Ratiner , to head the committee.

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