Better and fairer alcohol control

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Alcohol Beverage Control in DC
Alcohol Beverage Control in DC

By the time Charles Brodsky was forced to resign as chairman of the DC ABC Board in late May 2011, we had come full circle with regard to the board’s bias in pro of business interests at the expense of the District’s residential communities.  Because alcohol sales is a billion dollar industry that contributes to our economic viability, the District needs to figure out how to issue ABC licenses and arbitrate disputes in an timely, equitable and fair manner without negatively affecting the quality of life of DC residents.   

Former ABC member Laurie Collins (Photo by: facebook) Former ABC member Laurie Collins
Largely unpaid ABC Board members currently meet once a week, not counting holidays. So, the board actually meets part time, barely two months each year.  Meeting only once per week requires that its heavy caseload calendar be spread out over several months. On top of that, board members don’t show up, come in late, leave early, and some are greatly dependent upon the views of the chairperson who, more often than not, is biased and/or controlling, while the board attempts to carry out one of the city’s most important regulatory and licensing functions.

Community leaders get their asses kicked, as a result, by business establishments and their high paid lawyers, when neighborhood residents often rightfully protest licenses and licensees for good cause. They are then blamed for holding up the business licenses, when the real cause of the holdups are the board’s long calendar delays in scheduling protests and other adjudication hearings. These delays can amount to well over a year in some cases.

How can we make this process better?

I personally experienced the machinations of at least five politically appointed ABC Boards and their chairpersons—from the outside as the head of a neighborhood organization and later when I was appointed to the ABC Board by then Mayor Anthony Williams. What I saw and experienced during my time served in front of and before these boards raised serious concerns. 

The Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) has a couple of million dollars in its operating budget and a small staff which faces a billion dollar liquor industry, and the politically appointed members of the ABC Board who have oversight over the agency’s director, its budget and its enforcement employees. These are the same individuals who don’t show up, who leave early and who more often than not depend on the board chair for direction.  An inherent element of conflict of interest is created when an agency of government is structured to operate in that fashion.

I’d suggest that the District seriously rethink how it controls liquor licensing and its regulatory enforcement process, beginning with the ABC Board as currently constituted. The politically appointed ABC Board may need to be abolished in its present form and ABRA removed from the board’s supervision, so that liquor licensing and arbitration of disputes can occur in a fair, equitable and timely manner.

ABRA needs to operate independently of politically appointed board members. It needs a director who answers only to the Mayor. And it needs a professional arbitration board that meets on a full time basis. It should be the board’s function to adjudicate cases only.  It should be the ABRA director’s function to run the regulatory agency without interference from a board, to issue licenses, and only refer cases to the board that require arbitration. ABRA would need at least three staff attorneys or individuals whose expertise is either in DC law, regulation, or arbitration and mediation to sit on an ABC arbitration board, comprised of government employees without an ax to grind or money to be made from the sale of alcohol, entertainment or hospitality services.

I believe that adopting these changes would go along way to expedite the ABC licensing and arbitration process in a fair, equitable and timely manner. 

 

Laurie Collins

….is a former ABC Board Member who served under Mayor Anthony Williams

0 Comments For This Article

Peter Rosenstein

This is an interesting commentary by Ms. Collins who is a friend and who I think highly of.

But reading this one can only think of the community fights that Ms. Collins led against businesses from the community point of view. I agree with Ms. Collins that we need to begin to handle the issue of liquor licenses in a more professional manner and that we need to do so based on the law as it stands. The ABC has not become more business oriented in recent years but has begun to deal with issues based on law and not just the whims of a few members of the community.

It isn't that the businesses have those high priced lawyers but it is that the community groups have forced businesses into signing voluntary agreements, which actually aren't voluntary, and because of the fact that like the business or not many community groups file compalaints everytime a business wants a license.

The community groups, often with a lot of money behind them such as the DCCA, have cost businesses thousands of dollars in legal costs and kept them closed only to have the business win in the long run because what they wanted to do was legal.

I have no issue with community involvement, actually I am a proponent of it. But it often goes beyond the involvement stage to harassment of a legitimate business. And often it is not the community that is really represented but a few activists who actually were never elected to speak for the community but took it upon themselved to do so.

So I agree with Ms. Collins and am for a more professional ABC Board and office. But let us make sure that they make decisions based on the law that exists and and if we don't like the current law then the Council can change it.

Anonymous

This would be a huge improvement. Taking politics out of interpreting the law would go a long way to make the system more fair and it would prevent the whip-sawing that goes on with each new administration and its new ABC Board chair and members. The lack of consistency in the Board's rulings over time (and its lack of institutional memory) is astounding.

Whether the law stands or is changed is a separate topic. A professional board would be a welcome change no matter what the law.

The current law empowers many parties to participate and sets the ground rules for both participation and for administering the laws. There are flaws all around, and beginning the process of change at the Board level makes the most sense to me.

Anonymous

Thank you for being a voice of reason. This is the most well-reasoned and thoughtful response about this issue that I have read in a long time.

Anonymous

Laurie Collins, who meddled in the affairs of Mt. Pleasant businesses through the alcohol licensing process long after she moved from the neighborhood, is lecturing us on fairness?? Puh-leaze.

Anonymous

@Anonymous (No. 1): "Taking politics out of interpreting the law would go a long way to make the system more fair" -- isn't "interpreting the law" political by nature? Why not RELY on the law, instead of allowing renegade protestors to attempt to bend the law to their narrow concerns? That would be more equitable.

Anonymous (No. 2)

I think the Mayor should take a hard look at this option and consider a professional board. While some may dislike the current process, it is what it is until the laws and regs are changed by the Council. In the meantime, businesses have no choice but to deal with disgruntle community groups and communities have no choice but to deal with filing a "protest" to participate in the process.

Anonymous

Wow! Excellent points by Ms. Collins. I had no idea that was how ABRA and the ABC board has operated all these years. It would really be a positive step the Gray administration could take to make a progressive difference for the whole community. As to the voluntary agreements with local businesses.....like not selling single cans of alcohol....I think they did wonders to help clean up the neighborhoods!! Great suggestions.....now lets see if some needed action is taken.