Measure could grow city’s influence on alcohol board

Mayor Jake Day, Delegate Carl Anderson and Greater Salisbury Committee CEO Mike Dunn appear in Annapolis before the House Economic Matters Committee on Feb. 17.

Salisbury and Wicomico County leaders have agreed to a compromise on how liquor licenses are awarded — a move that would stop efforts to create a separate city licensing board.

Instead, the Wicomico County Board of Licenses Commissioners would be expanded from three to five members, all of whom would be appointed by the governor.

Three of the five would have to be city residents; both the city’s Mayor and County Executive would have to agree on which names are submitted to the governor, said state Delegate Carl Anderton.

A bill introduced earlier in the current General Assembly session on behalf of the city will now be amended to reflect those changes, Anderton said. Should it pass the House and Senate and win Gov. Larry Hogan’s approval, the changes would take effect in July.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day said the compromise has been in the works for a long time.

“All parties see this as a really good thing,” he said.

During a public hearing Feb. 17 in Annapolis, Salisbury officials and business owners told members of the House Economic Matters Committee that the city needed its own liquor licensing board to help streamline the licensing process and remove obstacles facing local businesses.

Day also testified that while the majority of liquor licenses are issued to businesses within city limits, none of the current liquor board members live in Salisbury.

Board of License Commissioners Attorney Richard Duvall joined representatives of the Wicomico County Liquor Control Board — which operates the county’s three dispensaries — in predicting the measure as it was written would dismantle the dispensary system. If that happens, the county would stand to lose revenue from the stores that goes toward paying for essential county services.

Anderton said the original bill might have passed, but the issue “got kind of divisive.”

Meanwhile, Anderton said he worked with Delegates Sheree Sample-Hughes and Chris Adams, County Executive Bob Culver and Day to iron out a solution.

“It was awesome to see the Mayor and the Executive come to an agreement,” he said.

Salisbury officials had been considering establishing a city liquor licensing board for a few years, but it became a priority after Culver publicly questioned how a liquor license was granted for last September’s National Folk Festival.

Culver said the city and state Comptroller Peter Franchot acted illegally when Franchot’s office granted a license for the festival, thereby bypassing the Wicomico County Board of License Commissioners.

Day has said that after city officials perceived the county’s licensing board was dragging its feet on approving a beer and wine license at last year’s event, the city went to Gov. Larry Hogan and then to Franchot whose office ultimately signed off on the license.

License Commissioners Chair A. Kaye Kenney has disputed the Mayor’s assertion, pointing out that a local nonprofit that had planned to oversee 2018’s alcohol sales for the event, withdrew its participation before the board could act.

The current board is short a member, as Salisbury building contractor Chris Eccleston resigned from the panel last year. James Allen serves alongside Kenney.

Duvall is equally adamant that the city government itself never presented a Folk Festival alcohol application to the License Commissioners in either of its first two years, and therefore can’t be seen as having been “dragging its feet.”

Franchot could still grant a license for this year’s National Folk Festival, set for Sept. 11-13, before a new law limiting his authority takes effect.

During last year’s session, the General Assembly passed a bill that transfers the alcohol and tobacco regulatory powers from the Comptroller’s Office to a new five-member Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, to be appointed by the governor.

Hogan vetoed the measure, but the General Assembly voted to override the governor and pass the bill into law, effective July 1, 2020.

This week, Duvall challenged statements made by in the Feb. 17 meeting by two Downtown Salisbury establishment owners.

In their committee appearance, business owners, Jeremy Norton of Roadie Joe’s and Alex Scott of the Brick Room — who each support the city’s effort to have its own licensing board — said that after giving interviews to a local television station, a county inspector visited both of their businesses the next day.

Norton said he gave interviews on two separate occasions, and “both times an inspector arrived.” That statement alarmed committee member and state Delegate Johnny Mautz to such a degree that he asked that Norton immediately inform him if something similar were to ever occur again.

Duvall cited TV news reports and an alcohol compliance inspector’s statement that the inspection of The Brick Room occurred before Scott’s TV news interview.

Duvall also said the inspection of Norton’s Roadie Joe’s occurred more than a month after the television interview.

He said inspections are regularly conducted on all licensed establishments twice every 12 months to ensure that the licensee, among other things, has a current traders, sales tax, and Health Department license, and has purchased all alcoholic products in accordance with the dispensary law.

The board Attorney said Norton’s restaurant was one of 16 establishments checked that evening.

Said Duvall: “The Board conducts inspections as a routine matter to ensure compliance with the licensing laws. All licensees are inspected. The inspections of Mr. Norton’s and Mr. Scott’s businesses were not done in retaliation for any interview and were respectful and cordial on both sides.”

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