Costello Goes To City Hall

City Paper

Eric Costello was appointed to replace William Cole as the 11th District City Councilman on Sept. 23, after a four-hour public hearing and no deliberation by the committee empaneled to consider 14 candidates. Upon his nomination, Costello told The Sun that he was humbled by the honor and that he would be an independent councilman: “The first priority is to vote the conscience of the district. It’s about voting what’s best for your district.”

This would be a change from his behavior as president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, according to his detractors.

For example, Costello was directed by members to pursue legal action against the Crossbar der Biergarten, a proposed 300-seat beer garden in the already bar-rich neighborhood. But over several years of liquor board hearings, Costello did not do as directed by his constituents, who repaid him by writing about a dozen letters and a petition, which was signed by more than 30 people, in opposition to his City Council bid. The 13-member selection committee, hand-picked by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, duly took no notice of it.

Young acknowledged to The Sun that “he encouraged Costello to apply for the seat” and “said he let committee members know that he ‘liked’ Costello.”

Several candidates passed over by the selection committee have written letters to the council president asking for a rehearing—or at least for deliberations, the Baltimore Brew reports.

“This isn’t about discontent over the nominee; this is about the process,” Benjamin Smith, a council candidate and current student body president of the University of Maryland School of Law, told the Brew. Federal Hill residents say the same about Costello’s handling of the Crossbar controversy.

“It all comes down to ignoring several majority votes of our membership,” says Paul Robinson, a former Federal Hill Neighborhood Association president. 

The rule of law must be paramount, says Robinson, and Costello chose instead to follow the rule of power. (Costello agreed to talk to City Paper last week but did not call at the appointed time, nor did he return several follow-up calls before deadline.)

Of course, following the rule of power has seldom been a mistake in Baltimore politics. The liquor board did the same for a decade, creating a bewildering body of policy and practice that is only now being challenged by the board’s two new members. Gov. Martin O’Malley named Dana Peterson Moore and Chairman Thomas Ward to the three-member liquor board in June.

At the Sept. 25 hearing, just two days after Costello’s appointment (pending full Council approval Oct. 6), those two voted to kill Crossbar’s license over the objection of Harvey E. Jones, who noted that the applicant had paid his renewal fees in good faith while spending “six figures” preparing to open the new place.

Robinson says the point at issue in opposing Costello wasn’t necessarily this particular bar or the concern that it would overcrowd the district with rowdy types. “But what you’re hearing, as Judge Ward explained, is the total refusal of a city agency to live up to Article 2B”—the section of state law governing liquor licenses.

 Former state Sen. George Della, called as a witness by Crossbar opponents, told members of the board what he was trying to accomplish by passing the so-called “180-day rule” in 2000.

“The licensees in my district wanted it,” the 28-year state senator from south Baltimore told the three-member board. “And the community groups wanted it. It absolutely made sense because of the great number of liquor licenses that existed in the district.”

The law deemed that any liquor-license holder who stopped selling alcohol had 180 days to resume business—or apply for and receive from the liquor board an additional 180 day “hardship extension”—before the license became invalid forever. It was so controversial that liquor-board members asked Della to amend it into oblivion with a new law. Della proposed that bill and then got an earful from constituents. So he withdrew it, leaving the original law standing.

But the liquor board, under executive secretaries Nathan Irby and later Sam Daniels, continued to grant license extensions for months and years beyond the legal maximum 360-day period. Dozens of licenses for places that had been shuttered for years were routinely renewed as owners shopped them around, or contract buyers weaved their bar projects through the dangerous legal shoals of neighborhood politics and zoning restrictions.

Crossbar, proposed by Ryleigh’s Oyster Bar owner Brian McComas, was just the latest example of such leniency. 

Peter Auchincloss, a lawyer for the applicant, argued that not only had the previous liquor board been correct in its interpretation of the law Della wrote—notwithstanding Della’s testimony on it—but that the Maryland Court of Appeals codified that interpretation in a case last year.

“The court found that the board could accept the license renewal” after the 180-day deadline, the lawyer insisted, flourishing a sheaf of licenses that were renewed in just that routine way. “And the Court of Appeals confirms that directly on-point.”

Ward disagreed. “Here, in this case, there is nothing ambiguous in the facts,” he said. “The clear command of the law was ignored.” Ward said the board today has “a duty to correct” the previous liquor board’s “inexplicable decisions.”

An unflattering state audit in 2013 started a shakeup. Daniels retired soon after, replaced in April of this year by Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, a town administrator in Capitol Heights. O’Malley’s two board appointments completed the sea change.

Costello could take his seat as early as Monday, Oct. 6, if the full council votes to approve his nomination. Normally, that is how the process goes. This may not be normal.

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