Venturing out of City Hall and into East Baltimore for the first of several planned community meetings, Baltimore’s Liquor Board ran into a buzz-saw of criticism from community leaders who accused them of being too lax and out of touch with the communities where liquor establishments are located.
The meeting moved quickly onto a central dispute between community leaders and the three-member body (appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan) when Commissioner Douglas H. Trotter said that the Liquor Board is “not an enforcement agency.”
That comment angered Chrissy Anderson and others during the gathering of more than two dozen people at the Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown.
“You saying you are not an enforcement agency, it is absolutely wrong. You are absolutely discouraging people who have issues with this stuff,” said Anderson, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association.
“We’ve had this debate. If you had your way I’m sure we’d be police enforcement too,” Trotter said. “You’ve actually said we should carry guns.”
Anderson said she does not think inspectors should carry guns: “I think that’s ridiculous.”
“But I think if your inspectors. . .go to a bar where they feel like they need to have a gun or a police officer with them that’s a pretty good indication that maybe that liquor license shouldn’t be there,” she said.
“Not if we Don’t See it”
The neighborhood meetings come on the heels of a bruising Liquor Board rules rewrite process that agency officials said was intended to update old regulations and make the agency more effective.
Critics said the rewrite committee, dominated by liquor industry lawyers and licensees, set back reform efforts by loosening several key provisions.
“If they’re bringing in drugs or prostitution and stuff like that, a $500 fine or a slap on the wrist like that is going to do nothing to them,” said Kevin Bernhard. “However a suspension for three weeks, six weeks, nine weeks can actually teach somebody a lesson.”
Anderson and others said calling 311 or 911 about nuisance bars or liquor stores has not been not effective, that with neither police nor liquor inspectors taking responsibility for following through on violators, citizens are left with no enforcement all.
“If a policeman says ‘I’m not going to write it up, [though] I’ve seen it.’ And we dispatch a liquor inspector out and we don’t see it, we can’t write it up,” Trotter said. “Somebody has to say there is a violation.”
“The Liquor Board can!” Anderson cried.
“Not if we don’t see it!” Trotter shot back.
“How about some inter-office cooperation between the two,” Bernhard asked. “If there is a known establishment with a series of problems, how is it that one agency cannot talk to the other?”
At that point Liquor Board Executive Secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth stood up.
“We do write the reports….you’ve seen our inspectors testify more in the last year … we’ve been trying to work on this issue,” she said.
Your Neighborhood? Not Like Ours
Later in the meeting, arguing that Trotter doesn’t understand the problem with nuisance bars, his critics asked him where in the city he lives.
Guilford, Trotter answered, noting that his closest bar area would be “Cold Spring Lane. . . Miss Shirley’s. . . Alonso’s.”
“I’m going to suggest to you that people who misbehave in your neighborhood are much better behaved than the people who misbehave on our neighborhood,” said Brian Sweeney, president of the Highlandtown Community Association.
“We’ve got problems where people are walking out at midnight or whenever a place closes their doors and jumping into cars and crashing into cars,” he said.
“I would venture a guess that you’d find a way to lean on somebody coming out of bars on Cold Spring Lane. . . there if there were a history of problems there,” he continued, “and we are asking you to help us n a similar fashion because we do feel we are out here on our own.”
Guilford’s Bar-related Crime Problem
Trotter protested that Guilford is impacted by liquor establishment crime, citing the York Road corridor in Waverly, “starting with the Stadium Lounge and going all the way down to 25th Street.”.
(Perhaps not the best example to cite to this crowd. The Stadium Lounge, shut down for illegal gambling violations by the previous Liquor Board under Chairman Thomas Ward, had its suspension shortened and was reopened under the current Board chairman Benjamin A. Neil via “a consent decree” that brought major community protest.)
“It affects our neighborhood more than any neighborhood,” Trotter said. “We have the highest rate of burglaries.”
Trotter also protested that the agency is hampered by inadequate staffing.
“We have 8 to 10 inspectors, okay? To cover 1,300 licenses, okay? The only thing we can do is rely on the community, okay? To give us feedback,” he said.
“It’s going to take time it’s a community effort with us to find out where the bad bars are,” he said.
“We can’t go out and be what I call enforcement. . .like the police and investigate activities unless we’re notified,” he said. “We’re not going out on the street! I’m not going to have round the clock operations until 3 o’clock in the morning!”
Two videos, shot by Matt Gonter, of a portion of the meeting.