Legislators Need To Ignore County’s Opposition

Worcester County’s opposition to a store owner’s request for legislation allowing a private liquor store in Berlin should come as no surprise. Additionally, it should have no relevance on whether legislation gets introduced in the Maryland General Assembly by local lawmakers.

In a closed session vote last week that never should have taken place in private, the County Commissioners did what they like to do — deliberate and vote on business behind closed doors that should clearly be discussed and voted upon in open session.

There was absolutely no reason for the county to hold these discussions in closed session, and it’s simply further confirmation the county operates in a bubble and has no interest in transparency. It has to change and candidates planning to challenge incumbents in this year’s elections would be wise to hammer home the need for more open government at the county level in their campaigns. The message will be well received.

Whether this discussion and vote violated the Open Meetings Act is unknown at this point and is essentially inconsequential because the ramifications of such a violation are largely ceremonial anyway. A written letter of reprimand is usually the consequence of discussing matters in private that should be for public consumption.

That’s not even the most important point here. What stinks in this case is the commissioners recorded a position on a matter without even hearing in person from the attorney representing the Cheers! beer and wine store in Berlin that would like to add liquor to its offerings. Instead, the commissioners simply heard from the Department of Liquor Control’s director, who after meeting with the attorney then articulated his reasons privately for opposing the matter, including the fact it might hurt the county store’s sales on Route 50.

At issue here is whether the local liquor law should be amended to allow for a privately owned liquor store in the corporate limits of Berlin. Currently, it’s illegal for a private store to sell liquor to go within town limits. It’s time for that change and a void currently exists in Berlin without a liquor store.

The county maintains it serves Berlin well with its liquor store out on Route 50 less than a mile from the town’s downtown district. That’s simply not the case. There is no reason for a Berlin store owner to not be able to sell liquor if he goes through all the appropriate channels on the local level. However, for that to occur a legislative change is needed. If introduced, it will surely be approved by the General Assembly and considered a local courtesy bill.

Again, the county’s opinion is irrelevant on the proposed legislative change because it’s a competitor and will obviously try and protect its revenue. It’s a ridiculous conflict of interest situation only confirmed by the county’s statement in its letter to attorney Joe Moore, representing Cheers!, that the legislative change could open up Berlin and other areas of the county to several liquor stores. The county knows better. That’s pure scare tactics. The Board of License Commissioners (BLC) decides licenses based on public need and that board will not allow liquor stores to overwhelm Berlin. The board will most likely grant one liquor to-go license and that will be it for Berlin.

The county should have simply not taken a position at all, as it did last year when a West Ocean City store sought to add liquor to its beer and wine operation after the DLC shuttered its neighboring liquor store. The county initially planned to oppose the license request at the  BLC meeting before eventually giving in to public opposition and deciding to not fight the license, which was granted in swift fashion by the BLC.

If the county does not rescind its shallow and predictable opposition, as it should, it’s our hope Senator Jim Mathias and/or Delegate Mike McDermott will simply ignore the county’s opposition and introduce the bill. The county’s point of view on this matter deserves no consideration and there is no need to make this an election year football.