A strange thing happened on Friday afternoon—Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot visited the headquarters of the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC).
Franchot has been a persistent and vocal critic of the DLC, which controls the wholesale distribution of alcohol and retail sale of liquor in the county. In the past, he has called the department that generates about $30 million in profits for the county “the last bastion of a medieval state system.” He has urged county and state leaders to privatize the sales and distribution of alcohol
Franchot was invited by the DLC’s newly-installed director Robert Dorfman.
The department has been criticized for inaccurate deliveries, shoddy customer service and a limited alcohol selection. But over the past year the DLC has been trying to redefine itself under the leadership of Dorman, a former Marriott executive, and John Zeltner, a former executive at Premium Distributors in Virginia. Dorfman was hired in December and Zeltner has been overseeing warehouse operations for about 18 months.
On Friday as Franchot met with department leaders whose jobs his rhetoric threatens, he toned down the criticism. He listened as Dorfman explained how the department is trying to run more like a business by working to streamline the distribution process, lower prices and improve customer service. Franchot praised a banner in the Gaithersburg warehouse that says “100% accountability/ 0% excuses – our new culture.” He gave Kevin Bell, an employee who has worked at the department for 39 years, one of his signature golden medallions to recognize Bell’s service to the county.
Photo by Andrew Metcalf.
Despite his receptive demeanor, Franchot explained to the department’s leaders during a discussion with them that his philosophy toward the department hasn’t changed. Franchot is the state’s chief alcohol and tobacco regulator as well as the head tax collector.
“I want the county to get out of the liquor business,” Franchot said. “That’s a philosophical difference. To the extent that changes are underway here and Mr. Dorfman can lead and help the county become more customer friendly—in the context of what he have now—that’s what I’m interested in hearing and observing.”
Zeltner ushered Franchot through the county’s massive alcohol distribution warehouse, where the DLC stores hundreds of thousands of cases of beer, wine and liquor. The warehouse has been redesigned under Zeltner to make it more efficient and so workers can find products more easily.
Dorfman told the comptroller the DLC is doing everything it can to better take care of county consumers and the 1,100 restaurants and beer and wine stores that buy alcohol from the department. The DLC is also working to improve the appearance of its 26 county-run retail stores, particularly the older stores that have been criticized by residents and County Council members for their dingy décor.
Del. James Gilchrist, Comptroller Peter Franchot, DLC Director Robert Dorfman, DLC Warehouse Chief John Zeltner and Del. Charlie Barkley during the warehouse tour. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
After the tour and discussion, Franchot said he supports the operational improvements.
“I still think the county should not be in the liquor business and would suggest we move to privatization,” Franchot said. “But right now the law of the land is this and this is the structure, so we’re going to work to improve it.”
The comptroller added that he plans to continue to support privatization efforts and remains concerned that additional investments in the department will make it more difficult to privatize it in the future.
“Obviously we have elections next year and I hope that privatizing the DLC is a major issue,” Franchot said. “I hope that the new elected officials in Montgomery County agree with me. It’s not a criticism of Mr. Dorfman or [Zeltner]. I think it’s terrific they’re bringing a new attention to customer service… I give them an A for effort.”
Dorfman said he thought the discussion with Franchot was productive.
“I think it served the purpose I invited him here for, which was to learn a little more about what we’re doing and the improvements we’re making,” Dorfman said. “I wanted to get him know better. We’re proud of what we’ve done. I know it’s very hard for him to change his position, but at least he’ll understand we’re doing the very best we can do. My job is to ensure that’s what we do and maintain the department as an important and vital aspect of the county.”
In December 2015, Franchot joined Bethesda Del. Bill Frick in Silver Spring to endorse Frick’s bill that would have called for a referendum to ask voters whether the DLC’s monopoly should remain in place. If the referendum passed, private distributors would have been able to enter the county’s alcohol market and compete with the DLC. However, the bill failed to gain enough support from the county’s House delegation and never received a vote in the full House of Delegates.
Franchot’s office also released a report at the time that estimated removing the DLC’s monopoly protections would generate an additional $193.7 million in economic activity in the state and create about $23 million in state and local tax revenue. County leaders disputed the report's findings after it was released, maintaining instead that the department generates needed county revenue to bolster funding for schools and other government priorities.