Baltimore's liquor licensing mess

Our view: A legislative audit reveals the city's liquor agency is wholly incompetent. So what else is new?

April 08, 2013

Here's the gist of what legislative auditors discovered when they recently evaluated Baltimore's liquor board: It is doing a lousy job. And here's a short summary of the liquor board's response: Yup.

It would be shocking if it weren't so predictable. Does anyone living in this city believe the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners has ever done an adequate job of overseeing businesses that sell alcohol? Maybe a few former commissioners, but probably not them either.

Not that the business of regulating bars and package stores is without controversy elsewhere in the state. Liquor boards are traditional dumping grounds for political patronage, and there are all sorts of opportunities for mischief and favoritism.

But Baltimore's liquor board exists on a level of incompetence that is likely unparalleled in Maryland. Don't take our word for it. Just read the audit's scathing executive summary.

The place is virtually bereft of paperwork. There's no evidence that the board verified 358 of 1,360 licensees in the 2011-2012 license year. That sounds terrible enough, but there's also no evidence that a lot of licensees paid their fees or applicable late fees (if they were even asked to do so).

Meanwhile, it's clear that the board doesn't have much in the way of written policies regarding inspections — or even hold their employees' feet to the fire to perform them. Full-time inspectors are expected to visit four establishments daily, so how many achieved that modest goal in the course of a year? Zero. Even part-time inspectors who failed to meet the goals written into their employment contracts received no apparent penalty. As a result, hundreds of places go unvisited each year.

And it's not because the place is understaffed. At the time of the audit, it employed 14 full-time and five part-time inspectors. How many does it actually need? The auditors calculate maybe six full-time.

There's more. The board doesn't have formal guidelines for discipline of licensees that violate liquor laws. It lets businesses with expired licenses off the hook. It doesn't bother to evaluate employee performance or track the outcome of complaints to the city's 311 call system.

Of course, the auditors aren't the only ones who recognize that the board doesn't run a tight ship. Even the agency's executive secretary, Samuel T. Daniels Jr., acknowledged to a Sun reporter that the organization runs on an "obsolete system," although he claims his operation "functions far better than the suggestion of dysfunction that the audit report finds."

That may be news to the auditors. In the agency's official response to the audit, Mr. Daniels described the report as "thorough" and "insightful." And the agency agrees with all but a few of its recommendations. Sounds like a mea culpa to us.

So why is the city's liquor board — with all due respect to Mr. Daniels — so dysfunctional? We suspect the heart of the problem is that it's controlled by the city's Senate delegation. The buck doesn't stop at the desk of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. It's a state agency (which is ridiculous to begin with) filled with the senators' designees (who also pass muster with the governor).

Yet, here's the price city residents pay for that incompetence: poorly regulated bars and liquor stores. Baltimore's struggles with such places, the harm they do to public health and safety and to property values, is well-documented. That's why the city has been trying to do something about it through a rewrite of the zoning code.

How much better might life be in this city if there was a more aggressive enforcement approach to liquor licensing? Certainly, it's hard to believe any regulatory body is doing an adequate job when it can't even provide the paperwork to demonstrate what its employees have been doing. Or even make sure inspectors are visiting license holders.

Baltimore deserves better. And there are relatively easy fixes available. Why not assign liquor licensing to the city police department or health department and eliminate political patronage entirely? Not only would liquor licensing be handled more competently, but the equally vexing problem of political influence would be taken out of the equation, too.

Of course, there's a reason why the system has been in place for 60 years. It serves the politicians involved, and it will likely take a major scandal, political embarrassment or criminal prosecution for that to change. Sadly, that the agency is merely incompetent — and has been so for as long as anyone can remember — is probably not enough.

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