Baltimore liquor board is 'changing everything,' chairman says

Baltimore's liquor board is reforming the way it does business — cutting staff, adding supervision and imposing new work rules — after a state audit revealed a lax work ethic and spotty enforcement, its chairman told lawmakers Tuesday.

"We're changing everything," Stephan Fogleman, chairman of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, said at a hearing in Annapolis. A recent audit uncovered widespread problems with the liquor board, a hybrid state-city agency criticized by current and former workers as a vestige of political patronage.

Auditors found that two workers who were expected to conduct more than 800 inspections of liquor establishments each year instead completed only 41. The board's antiquated paper processing system was so mismanaged that workers resorted to makeshift arrangements.

"One of the inspectors told an auditor that he kept the records in his trunk because that way it wouldn't get lost," Fogleman told the General Assembly's Joint Audit Committee. "Obviously, we can't go on like this."

The audit found that the board had no written policies on how employees should do their work, did not review employee performance, failed to have paperwork showing it responded to many citizen complaints and inconsistently meted out punishment to violators of liquor laws.

"This audit and these layoffs have definitely sent a message to everyone in this agency, especially the inspectors," Fogleman said during the first public discussion of the audit released in April.

Since the audit came out, the liquor board has laid off four of its 14 full-time inspectors and asked the city to help computerize its records, officials said. Inspectors have been given heftier workloads and are no longer allowed to work from home. A "work group" of state lawmakers, city representatives and some of Gov. Martin O'Malley's staff has been convened to make sure the problems at the liquor board are resolved.

Legislators asked for further proof that the problems are getting resolved.

"The issues are on the table," Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, said after the hearing. "It's evident with all the findings that action needs to be taken."

Fogleman called the retirement of the board's veteran executive secretary Samuel T. Daniels Jr., a political appointee, "a new change at the top" and assured lawmakers that "with that retirement, we had a change in philosophy."

But Daniels, who left the liquor board in June after a 26-year career with the agency, said in an interview that political meddling interfered with the board's work and it was a challenge to coax inspectors to do as they were asked.

"Much of the insolence at the liquor board had come from state elected officials," Daniels said, adding that the audit's revelations will allow reforms that had been difficult to adopt in the past.

"There is a new attitude, and that attitude is that the politicians have backed away and now allow the agency to function the way it always should have," Daniels said. "Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant."

Timothy R. Brooks, director of performance audits for the state's Office of Legislative Audits, said a city audit in 2007 found many of the same problems his staff uncovered this time. Then as now, he said, leaders of the liquor board acknowledged the problems and vowed to fix them.

"Simply agreeing will not resolve these issues," Brooks said.

Fogleman, who was recommended for his post by city senators and appointed by O'Malley, blamed much of the dysfunction on the fact that until 1999 the agency's employees were all political appointees. And because the agency is a joint state and city entity, Fogleman said, "previous administrations" effectively answered to no one.

"The problem was there was a lack of clarity," said Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of the city's Senate delegation. "The previous staff had taken the ambiguousness of the situation and manipulated it so that they could not be held accountable."

While the liquor board is a state agency, all of its employees and operations are paid by the city. City officials said Tuesday that they joined the work group to resolve problems revealed in audit, not to take over its operations.

"It is important that the liquor board functions at its optimal efficiency to serve the small-business owners of Baltimore," said Travis Tazelaar, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Residents who have challenged the liquor board — and complained to state lawmakers — were concerned that the committee did not receive greater assurances Tuesday that problems would be resolved.

Kristine J. Dunkerton, director of the Community Law Center, said her group has been watching the liquor board closely for years. "When the audit came out, we thought, 'Hallelujah, this validates everything we've been saying.'"

But in the months since the audit's release, Dunkerton said, she witnessed few changes. In response, the Community Law Center started a blog tracking the liquor board's decisions.

Victor Corbin watched the hearing and said afterward he was surprised lawmakers didn't ask more questions about how the situation arose or whether all workers who erred faced punishment.

"What disciplinary actions were taken?" Corbin said. "In the private sector, falsifying records would get you fired."

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