Sam Daniels' retirement may be just the start

The pending retirement of Baltimore Liquor Board fixture Samuel Daniels may just be one of many changes coming to the antiquated and powerful agency which oversees the provision of liquor licenses in Baltimore City.

"He's retiring. And we anticipate there could be other retirements in the near future," says board chairman Stephen Fogleman. "I'll leave it at that."

Daniels, the board's executive secretary with much day-to-day authority, last week confirmed his retirement, effective July 1, in the wake of a critical state audit of the agency.

The state audit found inspectors not doing inspections, inspectors inspecting closed establishments and not noting they were closed, failure to confirm criminal background checks, and a host of other problems ("Audit Slams Liquor Board," Mobtown Beat, April 10).

"Frankly, this has nothing to do with the audit," Daniels says. "Everybody would probably like for it to look like that, but truth is, there is a major philosophical difference between me and the agency and the mayor and her designs on all things liquor."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's spokesperson, Ryan O'Doherty, says the mayor's office has "no comment on Mr. Daniels," adding that "the liquor board is a state agency and under state law, the city has no authority over the management of the agency." He sent City Paper a memo from the attorney general to that effect.

The question of just who has what authority at the liquor board-and to whom they owe fealty-has long puzzled outsiders and insiders alike. The three-member board itself is appointed by the governor, but in fact, the city's legislative delegation has a large say in who gets those jobs, sources say. And while the board is supposed to manage the inspectors themselves, the reality has long been quite different, with Daniels, as the board's executive secretary, taking the lead on that challenging job and the chief liquor inspector (Daniels' former position) serving as the second-in-command.

Donald Fitzgerald, the chief inspector as of last week, made news in early 2011 for serving as a consultant to would-be bar owner Damien Bohager, who was planning a new mega-club that appeared on paper to be similar to his old eponymous club. Pigtown community groups roared, Fitzgerald was suspended while Daniels investigated, and then (at least as far as the public could see) nothing happened.

"Our investigation did not determine that he in fact had engaged in a compensatory scheme," Fogleman says. "It was a volunteer situation and the matter is closed." (At press time, Fogleman told City Paper Fitzgerald is no longer the chief inspector.)

The rules were tightened to prevent a recurrence, Fogleman says, and now, because of the audit, the board itself has begun overseeing inspectors. "We're going to re-evaluate everyone according to the criteria that is set by us," he says. And this is possible because "Article 2b [the state liquor law] appears to give the chair of the board pretty broad power to monitor the inspectors as well as the character of all the licensees," he adds, laughing at the term "character." "There is also an AG's opinion that does a nice job of researching the matter. It says the executive secretary makes six times what the chair does, so the executive secretary has the day-to-day management responsibility."

That was the way until very recently, Fogleman adds.

Daniels, meanwhile, says he plans to consult for bar owners starting July 1: "I essentially will be a gun for hire with regulatory agencies," he says, adding that he will be "in and out of the office" until then, using up accrued sick days.

One person angling for Daniels' job is Michelle Wirzberger, director of legislative affairs for City Council president Bernard C. "Jack" Young and a longtime liquor-board watcher from her days as a staff lawyer for the Community Law Center, where she fought battles against such establishments as Club Mate and Club Choices.

Wirzberger says the lines of authority and the basic rules have been confusing for years.

"The audit makes it very clear that change has to occur," she says. "There needs to be clearly established, clearly defined roles for staff, for the people in the agencies, and for the licensees so that no one is trying to find a licensee in a 'gotcha.'"

The lack of clear and consistent rules, Wirzberger says, was never more apparent than just last month, when several neighborhood challenges to licenses were summarily thrown out because they were filed a day late-on Monday, April 1. "The community associations followed the board's guidelines," Wirzberger says. "We need someone in the agency who has the desire to push for change."

Another said by insiders to be interested in the executive secretary position is Harvey Jones, a commissioner. Fogleman himself confirms his interest-which is widely known-in a district court judgeship.

"You can say I didn't deny it," he says.

In the meantime, though, Fogleman is the boss of the liquor board. He says changes have already begun, starting with no more informal hearings held by Daniels. The change will increase the board's workload by a couple hundred cases a year, Fogleman says.

And then there are the computers. Fogleman says he's hoping to get tablets and software soon that will let inspectors beam their forms back to a headquarters database via the web and, coincidentally, allow the board to monitor their work more closely to real time.

"We're looking at how many iPads we'll need," he says.

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