Liquor board to reconsider voided license

April 27, 2006|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

The city liquor board agreed yesterday to reconsider its decision to void the license of a tavern owner whose establishment had been closed for months because of construction problems.

The owner of the bar, James Quigley, had appealed the board's Aug. 18 decision in city Circuit Court, but before a hearing scheduled for yesterday could begin, attorneys for both sides agreed that the board would revisit whether Quigley's license had expired. Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan agreed to sign an order remanding the case to the state agency.

By agreeing to rehear the case, the board has acknowledged that it might have misinterpreted a state law affecting licenses such as Quigley's, which was pending transfer.

During a crackdown on dormant licenses last year, the board voided a handful of other licenses that were also pending transfer.

The decision to reconsider the case comes less than two weeks after the board received a letter from the attorney general's office regarding the proper interpretation of the Maryland law, which states that transfers "shall" be completed within 180 days.

But Gerald Langbaum, an assistant attorney general assigned to the liquor board who wrote the letter, said that doesn't mean they must be completed within that time, which is the way the board had interpreted the law in some cases.

Liquor board Chairman Mark S. Fosler said that Langbaum's letter would be helpful in revisiting Quigley's case, which was included in a Dec. 27 article in The Sun about confusion over the law.

"What we said all along is that we wanted to follow the rule of law," Fosler said. "The board doesn't have any pro or con feelings about the licensees. We just want to follow the laws that the legislature put in place."

Attempts to reach Quigley, who bought another liquor license in the meantime, were unsuccessful.

Giovanna Blattermann, whose license was voided in July, shortly after Fosler and Commissioners Edward Smith Jr. and Jeffrey B. Pope were appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said she missed the deadline to file an appeal in court. She said she asked Fosler if the board would reconsider her case anyway, but Fosler said too much time had elapsed.

"I still think they should revisit it," said Blattermann, who had worked five years to open a pizza restaurant in Little Italy when the board voted to void her liquor license.

"I don't think I should have to spend $7,000 to go through the court system for them to acknowledge that they made a mistake," she said.

At the time of Blattermann's and Quigley's hearings, board members were adhering to a strict interpretation of the law, in part due to information provided to them by Chief Liquor Inspector Samuel T. Daniels, Jr., who has since been appointed acting executive secretary of the agency.

Former executive secretary Nathan C. Irby Jr. was fired last month but has filed a petition in city Circuit Court to get his job back.

Daniels has alleged that former liquor board officials allowed brokers to hoard licenses for bars that had closed in violation of a state law that dictates that inactive licenses "die" after 180 days, or 360 days with a hardship extension.

During Blattermann's and Quigley's hearings, it was clear that board members believed they had no choice but to void the licenses.

In the months since the hearings, two things have happened. Concrete evidence of liquor license hoarding has not been discovered. And lawyers for other licensees have pointed out that state law also protects licenses that are pending transfer, in part because of the length of time it can take bar owners to get the proper permits from the city's health and fire departments. The permits are required to complete a license transfer at the liquor board.

Langbaum also advised board members that it was up to them to determine consequences in the event that a transfer took longer than 180 days to complete.

Based on that advice, Fosler has said that the board will require proof of construction, financing or permit holdups in cases where transfers have been pending for long periods of time.

There are some, however, who believe that the board should hold licensees to a strict, 180-day schedule for transfers. Immor Clyte Franklin, a past president of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association and the owner of a city bar, said that he would work to further strengthen rules regarding license transfers to guard against prolonged delays. He called the law that protects licenses pending transfer from expiration a "loophole."

Fosler said he would welcome any efforts to strengthen or clarify state liquor laws.

"Anything that would further clarify the picture would be most helpful," he said. "The board doesn't want to play God with anybody's quality of life or investment or business."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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