By Ian Duncan and Alison Matas, The Baltimore Sun
7:05 PM EDT, April 6, 2013
Black scuff marks line the staircase at 922 N. Charles St., left there by frustrated tenants kicking the wall in a vain attempt to make their neighbor, the Museum Restaurant and Lounge, quiet down. Most nights, tenants say, the sound of DJs hyping up the crowd rattles china cabinets and nerves alike.
"It's thump, thump, thump from the music," said Will Penn, 48, who lives in one of the apartments next door. Penn, like many other Baltimoreans who live near bars, said he has filed complaints using the city's 311 system but has seen nothing change.
"Next day I'd get an email saying, 'Your issue has been resolved,' " he said. Exasperated, he plans to move in with his girlfriend at the end of May.
Walter Webb, who runs the Museum, denied that it had a noise problem and said he has been targeted unfairly because he is one of the few black business owners in the neighborhood.
But complaints about the authorities' response highlight larger problems at the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners. State auditors reported last week that half the complaints made to the board via the 311 system were closed with no evidence of any investigation — something the agency's executive secretary acknowledged is "lazy and wrong."
The scathing report confirmed what many community leaders say they have long suspected: that the state agency is either unable or unwilling to respond to concerns. The audit also said liquor inspectors failed to carry out routine reviews, and closed some complaints before starting an investigation because they did not want city statistics on open issues to reflect poorly on them.
"Usually [I would] not speak out against an organization that's there to help us, but the liquor board inspectors don't help us," said Kevin Bernhard, president of the Highlandtown Community Association. "I've never seen one in my seven years in Baltimore City."
Close to 1,400 Baltimore businesses hold liquor licenses — including stores, bars and restaurants. Each must comply with a long list of regulations covering who can buy alcohol and when, along with restrictions on noise levels and crowd control.
The liquor board is a state agency and not directly controlled by city authorities, but it gives revenues from fees and fines to the city, and the city's budget funds its operations.
The board employs a squadron of 10 inspectors to check on problems; several inspectors have been laid off since the audit because of budget cuts. Webb said they have been out to the Museum numerous times in recent months and deemed the complaints unfounded.
"They're not playing with me," he said. "I think they're doing their job."
He acknowledged some problems with an older music system at the Museum but said it was replaced more than two months ago.
"We're willing to work with anyone to correct any problems," he said.
But in general, the audit found that in the inspectors' work is often not documented and that routine inspections are carried out only spottily. Two inspectors made just 41 visits in an entire year reviewed by auditors, who calculated that each inspector should be able to handle 872 inspections a year.
Samuel T. Daniels Jr., the executive secretary of the licensing agency, acknowledged many of the problems and said he was happy to talk about them because he has been "inspired to retire" sometime this year.
"It's lazy and wrong," he said of inspectors not properly investigating 311 complaints. He said the problems could be remedied by replacing a few of the inspectors.
The average salary for an inspector is $43,875, according to city data.
If the inspectors find that establishments are violating liquor laws, the board can levy fines and even take away licenses. But community leaders say they must do the work of inspectors themselves. A group of 10 neighbors can protest the transfer of a license or its annual renewal.
Mount Vernon residents have followed that path with the Museum, campaigning to have its license revoked when it comes up for renewal this year and filing pages of signed petitions with the liquor board. A hearing is set for April 18.
The Baltimore Sun was unable to review the Museum's liquor board file, which is supposed to include records of complaints and inspections, because it had been removed to City Hall in advance of the hearing.
The petition for a hearing came after months of frustration, residents said. Neighbors have filed 42 complaints via the 311 system about the Museum since October, with 13 of them referred to the liquor agency, according to the system's records.
"I was told my first complaint was resolved, but obviously not. PLEASE deal with the noise situation," a complaint filed Nov. 11 reads.
When issues do come before the three-member liquor board — which oversees the inspectors — they are usually dealt with consistently, the state auditors found. Community association leaders said they think Chairman Steve Fogleman gives them a fair hearing.
Fogleman does not run the liquor agency day to day; that's Daniels' job. But Fogleman said the report's findings give him a "mandate for change."
He added that he strongly supported the board using the 311 system, an upgrade from a single cellphone line, and said that thousands of complaints had been successfully resolved.
Club Confetti in Upper Fells Point was called before the board late last month in response to multiple complaints about assaults and reported violations of liquor laws. Residents had called 311 about the establishment 23 times since October.
"Several guys drunk thrown out of the bar over 15 mins of yelling and banging on the door then the bar called the police," reads a complaint about the bar filed Nov. 18.
"At closing customers yelling and get into a fight where a guy punched another knowing [sic] him to the ground," another reads.
The club disputes the complaints. The owner of the bar, named in liquor-licensing records as Cristin Neal Adad, did not respond to requests for comment. Franklin Alvarado, a manager, said the bar was "taking care" of some problems.
A liquor board ruling on Club Confetti was postponed.
Bernhard mounted a campaign to get La Raza Cantina, an Eastern Avenue bar, closed down. Residents filed noise complaints via the 311 system, but in some cases inspectors later deemed them unfounded.
"We've had to go and do sleuthing to get pictures of live entertainment," Bernhard said. "We really are the police where [the inspectors] should be."
Bernhard said that might have been because the inspectors did not come out immediately, another common complaint among neighborhood activists. "There was an issue where there was loud noise reported on a Saturday evening [and] the liquor board inspector came out on a Monday afternoon before the bar even opened."
Noise is a problem for bars across Baltimore, but inspectors chose an unusual approach to dealing with it, auditors found. Although the board has a noise meter, inspectors chose to trust their ears instead, according to the audit.
The auditors were perplexed. "It would appear appropriate for [the board] to use objective, scientific equipment to determine the validity of noise complaints," they wrote.
In the end, La Raza's neighbors hired a lawyer and presented evidence in a two-hour hearing before the board in November.
The board took the bar's license away, but the owners appealed to Circuit Court, so the bar stayed open temporarily.
Jenny Mejia, who ran La Raza and is named on its liquor license, said neighbors had made a racially motivated decision to drive her out of business and made unfounded complaints.
"There wasn't no drug dealing in the building, there were no issues or anything apart from two incidents that happened outside the place," she said. "They were being racist."
Bernhard said race did not play a role in the community's opposition to the bar.
At the end of March, a Baltimore judge upheld the board's decision to revoke La Raza's license, but not before its owners had been fined $500 for selling a $5 glass of Wild Turkey whiskey to an underage police cadet in January.
An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed a quote to Victor Corbin, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association. It has been corrected here.
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