Liquor board chief resigns

After rocky tenure, Fosler takes exam to become inspector

February 03, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

Baltimore liquor board chairman Mark S. Fosler has resigned as head of the state agency and appears to be eyeing a subordinate position as liquor inspector, according to agency officials and sources familiar with the hiring process.

At liquor board hearings at City Hall Thursday, commissioner Edward Smith Jr. took over in Fosler's absence. Smith confirmed Fosler's departure but did not elaborate.

Fosler recently took the civil service exam to become a liquor inspector and a short time later quit his post as liquor board chairman, said Samuel T. Daniels, the agency's executive secretary.

Daniels said Fosler was not forced out, and his resignation letter did not specify a reason for his departure. The note was copied to Gov. Martin O'Malley as well as to Smith and commissioner Jeffrey B. Pope, according to sources who saw the letter.

"It was [Fosler's] decision," Daniels said.

Fosler's departure comes at an uncertain time for the liquor board.

Fosler, Pope and Smith were appointed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, who was defeated by O'Malley in the November election. There is speculation that O'Malley, a Democrat, might appoint new commissioners to guide the liquor board, which monitors city establishments with liquor and adult entertainment licenses.

In addition, city Auditor Robert L. McCarty Jr. has confirmed that his office could release performance and fiscal reports on the liquor board next week. The performance audit, a draft copy of which was obtained by The Sun, could renew concerns about the agency's day-to-day operations. McCarty cautioned that the final report could be different. He said the performance audit is not part of the normal auditing cycle and referred to it as an "additional review."

Although the liquor board is a state agency, revenue it collects through licensing and fines goes to the city, which is why the city auditor performs periodic and special audits of the agency.

The draft audit raises questions about inspections by liquor board employees, the way inspectors account for their workday, and reimbursements for expenses, among other items.

A review of inspection reports for a 22-month period showed that there were fewer inspections than there should have been, considering the number of inspectors -- 18 full-time and seven part-time -- on staff. During fiscal year 2005, there were 618 routine inspections. The next year, there were 2,319, but auditors noted that the agency was still falling short of its performance goals.

"The records we reviewed did not contain inspection reports for many establishments, and numerous establishments were inspected only once during the 22-month period," the draft audit states.

Auditors also questioned reimbursement for expenses inspectors incurred on the job, including fees for parking garages, meters and cell phones. Auditors noted that the two inspectors with the highest reimbursement amounts did not appear to be doing inspections.

In a response, Daniels described steps he and other liquor board officials have already taken to correct problems.

"A mistake of the past was to accept and continue dysfunction," Daniels wrote in his Dec. 7 response to the auditing team. He said that was not the case now.

Fosler, who was appointed to the board in 2003 and had been chairman for about two years, has weathered considerable upheaval during his tenure.

In 2005, he stood by Daniels, who was then chief inspector, when Daniels was suspended by two former commissioners for insubordination. Daniels filed a lawsuit in an effort to get his job back. In it, he accused the two commissioners, as well as former Executive Secretary Nathan C. Irby Jr., a former city councilman and state senator, of political collusion. The lawsuit, which was withdrawn when Daniels returned to work, sparked an investigation by the state prosecutor's office. That investigation wrapped up recently and no criminal charges were filed.

Fosler also tried to weed out inactive liquor licenses, which are often held by profit-motivated creditors, and to enforce a state law that voids such licenses after 180 days of inactivity. However, because of an inaccurate interpretation of the law, the board incorrectly voided several licenses. After receiving counsel from the attorney general's office, the board revived several licenses and amended its policy.

Fosler also played a role in the dismissal of former executive secretary Irby, who many neighborhood groups complained did not help settle disputes with problem bars. Irby was forced out of his job last year, but he challenged the action, and in the end, he agreed to resign and collect $40,000 in back pay and benefits.

Fosler's role in the Irby ouster resulted in an attempt by state senators from the city to block his reappointment to the board last year. Ehrlich eventually pulled Fosler's nomination, as well as those of Smith and Pope, a move that prevented their dismissal. The men were sworn in for new terms in April after the 2006 General Assembly ended without a formal confirmation of their nominations.

Fosler has made public statements in recent months that he was ready to step down. He has said that his wife is ill and that he needs to spend more time taking care of her.

It was unclear when Fosler might start as a liquor inspector, but sources close to the situation said it might be soon. Fosler currently works for the city's Community Relations Commission, which investigates allegations of discrimination.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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