SNOW HILL — Already facing questions about their takeover of the Liquor Control Board (LCB) despite not actually assuming control until July 1, the Worcester County Commissioners defended their policies and promises Tuesday at a public hearing.
“We feel that we were somewhat mislead,” said Shawn Harman, owner of Fish Tales restaurant in Ocean City.
Harman spoke on behalf of the Worcester Alliance for Fair Markets (WAFM), a collection of liquor licensees formed earlier this year in an attempt to have the LCB abolished after the board was found guilty of several trade infractions.
Instead of abolition, however, the commissioners decided to bring the pseudo-government LCB organization under direct county control, a decision that many still consider controversial.
“I don’t believe anyone up here wants to be involved in the liquor business,” said Commission President Bud Church.
The question of whether or not a public government should insert itself into a private industry has been hotly debated in Worcester for many years. Even before the commission decided to absorb the agency, the LCB was still something of a county organization, though it operated independently.
Harman said that the position of WAFM was that any kind of county LCB was in contradiction to the idea of free trade.
“We would like to circumvent the system and buy from the free market,” he said.
Church said that he understood Harman’s opinion and could appreciate his position, but did not understand why members of WAFM felt mislead or misinformed about the commission taking over the LCB.
“I don’t believe you’ve been betrayed at all,” he said.
Church pointed out that the county had worked with WAFM during the long transition process and had factored some of their suggestions into the final contract, including the highly publicized “sunset provision”, which would allow licensees to secede from the LCB monopoly in 2016 if they so choose.
Harman admitted that they had worked together in good faith, but felt that things had gone in a direction that was bad for free trade and that “the rug had been pulled from under” WAFM during the proceedings. He also questioned whether the county would stick to the sunset provision, since there had been a lot of talk about the new agency being permanent.
“We have to be a little skeptical,” said Harman, adding later that his group had “bent as far as we can go.”
He worried that the provision was fragile and conditional on how the new LCB was doing financially five years down the road. One of Harman’s fears was that the county would extend the timeline or eliminate the provision altogether if it suited the commission.
“We just want to make sure that the sunset, sunsets,” he said.
Church publicly went on record then promising that the commission would never go to the state legislature to ask for the sunset provision to be removed.
Church asked that Harman and the rest of his organization have a little patience with the new LCB. He reminded the assembly that the county had yet to take over operations and that it has nothing but good intentions.
“We aim to restore and preserve fairness,” said Church.
In his opinion, putting the LCB under county control was the responsible and ethical thing to do even if WAFM would have preferred Worcester to go the route of the majority of counties in Maryland. Those counties allow businesses to buy directly from whoever they chose instead of conducting purchases through an LCB, which many have labeled an unnecessary middleman.
But Church argued that an LCB could be good for businesses in the county, especially the smaller ones who cannot afford to buy liquor “by the truckload.” He pointed out that an LCB presented a lot of savings and convenience for “mom and pop” stores.
“We have a responsibility to everyone,” he said.
On top of that, Church noted that 40 employees would be out of work if the LCB was simply dissolved. Additionally, there are six stores and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory left to account for.
“We just couldn’t go in and close the doors,” said Church.
To ease the transition process, Church revealed that the commission has hired Bobby Cowger as a consultant. Cowger has served both as a County Commissioner and executive director of the LCB.
“I don’t think we could have hired a better consultant,” he said.
In response to Harman’s concerns, Commissioner Virgil Shockley said the county’s goal is honorable here.
“You were treated unfairly, you were treated unjustly,” Shockley told Harman. “We’re trying to make things better.”
Commissioner Louise Gulyas promised, “It isn’t perfect but it will work out,”
Church admitted that the commission might make mistakes in the earliest days of the new agency, but asserted that all business would be handled honestly and openly.
“The bottom line is…we didn’t want to be in this position,” said Church, who assured Harman that the commission would do the best that it could nonetheless.
“We want to work with you; we want to work for you,” he said.
The commission will vote on whether or not to adopt their new LCB policies on June 21.