At the start of a recent morning interview in one of the book-lined rooms of Thomas Ward's Bolton Hill house, the former longtime Baltimore City Circuit Court judge and just-appointed chair of the Baltimore City Liquor License Board forbids a reporter from using a recorder. Asked why, Ward thinks for a moment, his tie untied as he sits on his couch, legs crossed, and answers succinctly. "No reason," he says, "just old-fashioned."
And that's how the 87-year-old is likely to run the long-troubled agency that regulates the city's purveyors of alcohol: the old-fashioned way in which, as he puts it, "you don't monkey with public policy."
Ward, a U.S. Army veteran with the lanky, bespectacled bearing of Dwight Eisenhower, was a member of the Baltimore City Council in the 1960s and, before that, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He points out that he gained his seat on the bench in 1982 "by election, not by appointment" like most Circuit Court judges, so "I'm familiar with politics"—a force he blames for many of the agency's frailties.
"The problem with the liquor board has been that the politics went right up to the top," he says, but its "politically influenced structure is not going to be politically influenced with me."
Patronage jobs—appointments officially made by the Maryland governor, almost always as recommended by Baltimore City state senators—have been largely abandoned in favor of civil-service positions for liquor-board staff, but Ward said inspectors are still "hired from recommendations of state senators and then become civil service." And the three-member board that runs it—including Ward—still serves at the governor's pleasure. Ward says the circumstances of his appointment, though, set him apart from the traditional liquor-board political dynamic.
"I did not apply for this job," Ward says, explaining that his appointment came directly from Gov. Martin O'Malley. "I was called by the governor's office. I had nothing to do with it at all. I was not recommended by a senator. So I'm not going to allow commissioners to turn me around into running a liquor board that's not going to be doing the right thing—and I don't think I will have to, because I think we can do what's proper. And I know there are letters from senators and delegates to the board, asking us to do things, often routine things—but if I smell a rat, it isn't going to work."
Ward's stridently independent-minded entrance as the agency's top official comes at a time of rapid, top-down change that's been a long time coming, and hastened by the recent departure of Ward's predecessor, Stephan Fogleman, who took an appointment as a Baltimore City Orphan's Court judge. All told, what's underway—new leadership and staff, accompanied by the impending implementation of a package of laws aimed at cleaning up the liquor board passed this year by the state legislature—is a historic rebuilding of an agency whose hallmark has been its seeming immunity to effective reform.
At the board level, Ward explains, Harvey Jones will be the only holdover as Ward takes the helm and outgoing Elizabeth Smith's replacement is named, along with a new alternate member, required under this year's reform package. The new leadership will be charged with overseeing reforms prompted by a damning 2013 state audit—the first time the agency had been scrutinized by the state Office of Legislative Audits—that was ordered as a result of legislation passed in 2011. The audit's findings were scathing, with details such as an inspector that reported inspecting defunct establishments, two inspectors that didn't perform about 95 percent of their workload, and the board's failure to collect fines and fees ("Audit Slams Liquor Board," Mobtown Beat, April 10, 2013).
The administrative staff serves under the board's new executive secretary, Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, a former town administrator in Prince George's County who has no apparent political connections to Baltimore. Bailey-Hedgepeth says that while "there are quite a few people in the agency that have had ties to one senator or another," there are also "a lot of vacancies," including deputy executive secretary, chief inspector, and six or seven inspectors, though "we are probably going to leave some positions open."
As for implementing the reforms, Bailey-Hedgepeth says "this summer is going to be busy," with a committee being formed to help rewrite the agency's rules and regulations for the first time since 1998 and to put in place new requirements about how license applications are completed, along with a host of operational changes and ethics measures enacted by the reform package. Starting next year, all license applications will be posted online prior to hearings, creating a new level of transparency.
Ward says Bailey-Hedgepeth is "extremely intelligent, interested, and hardworking," and has "brought fresh air to an old place" while she "is hard at work trying to comply with the obvious mistakes" that had marred the board. The respect is mutual, with Bailey-Hedgepeth saying that Ward "has a lot of experience and knowledge from his years as a judge and City Council member, and as someone who is so tenured in the city, and that will be invaluable."
O'Malley's appointment of Ward is being received warmly even among some critics of the board. Becky Witt, an attorney with the Community Law Center whose blog, Booze News, is credited with forcing the board's conduct to change since the blog started last summer, says she's "certainly very happy to hear that the new chairman is a judge. To have that judicial experience can be very valuable, and I'm looking forward to seeing what proceedings will be like under a judge."
Former longtime board employee Samuel Thornton Daniels Jr., who stepped down as executive secretary last year, says he's now "a consultant for select [liquor] licensees, enjoying life outside of silly Baltimore politics, and happy to no longer need to maintain any pretense of respect for some of these people." As for Ward's appointment, though, he says, "I'm thrilled, and have every reason to believe Tom will be bringing good jurisprudence to the proceedings, something that has been wanting in the past."
Melvin Kodenski, an attorney who has long represented licensees before the board, is withholding judgment about the impending operational changes at the board—"how it works remains to be seen," he says—but he's happy about the Ward appointment. "To have someone with judicial temperament I think is going to be good," Kodenski says, adding that "it's a new regime, new things, hopefully it will work out for everybody—as long as it's a level playing field, that's all I'm asking for."
During the interview, a liquor inspector knocks on Ward's door to drop off a packet of documents, adding to the pile on his couch that he says he's already read as he prepares to take the agency's tiller. "I didn't even know the job had a salary," he quips, "but it means nothing to me financially"—and adds that "I was offered a parking thing for me for all meters in the city. I said I don't want that thing."
Regarding his age, it's apparent that Ward's many years haven't addled him in the least, and he addresses the issue head-on.
"I know O'Malley didn't know how old I am," he says, "and I was sure they were going to check me out to make sure I got all my marbles, but I frighten people with my memory. But when you get a call at 87 to take over a responsible position that has problems, it's nice, it's a compliment. I'm appointed for one year until June of 2015." Asked whether he'd stay longer if asked to, he says, "I wouldn't have the slightest idea at this point, I'll have to see."