State Legislators React Skeptically to Claims of Improvement in County Liquor Operations

State Legislators React Skeptically to Claims of Improvement in County Liquor Operations

Del. Barkley presses for an update from county before end of 2016 legislative session

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A detailed presentation by Montgomery County officials on recent improvements in the operations of the Department of Liquor Control (DLC) was met Thursday with skepticism from several members of the county’s state legislative delegation.

Reacting to statistics showing accuracy rates in excess of 98.5 percent in weekly deliveries of so-called special orders from the DLC to Montgomery County restaurants, Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Germantown, declared, “If all of what the DLC does is comparable to or better than private industry…why does every restaurant manager I talk with beg me to get rid of this system?”

Reznik is among the co-sponsors of pending legislation, introduced by Del. Bill Frick, D-Bethesda, that would authorize a referendum on whether to allow private alcohol wholesalers to compete with the county’s public liquor control system.

John Zeltner, who was hired late last year as the DLC’s chief of wholesale operations, vowed that major progress toward fixing problems not only in the special order system, but the DLCs overall delivery system, would occur over the next couple of months.

“The system is not operating the way it should,” Zeltner told about a dozen members of the 32-member Montgomery County legislative delegation during a presentation in Annapolis. Zeltner added, “It’s two months to get to where some of the issues go away.”

But Del. Charles Barkley, D-Germantown, who chairs the House of Delegates’ subcommittee with jurisdiction over alcoholic beverage issues, reacted impatiently to this timetable.

“I appreciate your comment about two months but it just so [happens] conveniently…two months puts us at the end of session,” Barkley told Zeltner, referring to the scheduled end of the 2016 General Assembly session in mid-April. “If we’re going to do anything, we have to do it before we get out of here—and of course, after a two-month period, it’s too late.”

Saying he is not sure whether legislation affecting the DLC’s status will be passed in the current session, Barkley told county officials: “By the end of February we need another report. If we go out into the stores and restaurants and I hear the same problems…I think we’re going to have to do something.”

Both County Executive Ike Leggett and the County Council have lined up against the Frick bill to authorize a referendum on allowing competition in the current public liquor control system. But Leggett and the council now appear split over separate legislation that would privatize only the DLC’s special order operations.

Responding to a question from Del. Ariana Kelly, D-Bethesda, Melanie Wenger, the county’s lobbyist in Annapolis, said that Leggett has withdrawn his support of the special order legislation, while the council continues to support it. Wenger represents both Leggett and the council before the General Assembly.

Edgar Gonzalez, named last spring as the DLC’s deputy director, repeatedly sought to assure the legislators that steps are being taken expeditiously to upgrade numerous aspects of the department’s operations. “It’s not only us in the department that have heard it, the whole county executive branch has heard it,” Gonzalez said, referring to the criticism of DLC operations. “So we’re under the microscope and we intend to perform.”

Longtime DLC director George Griffin abruptly resigned last week and Leggett said earlier this week he’s interested in coming up with a unified proposal to reforming the department so that new legislation may be submitted to the General Assembly in 2017.

Gonazalez also emphasized that it has taken much of the last year to create the structure to put changes in place. Referring to the request for assurances of improvements in two months cited by Zeltner, Gonzalez pointedly told members of the legislative delegation: “The fact that it’s two months and that’s the end of General Assembly—that’s not because of convenience…I’m sorry: Your jobs are extremely important, but we don’t function around your schedule.”

Del. Ben Kramer, D-Silver Spring, who has been a defender of DLC operations, praised the department for moving to address the complaints about its delivery operations. “The fact of the matter is that this is a huge operation—so you’re not going to turn a battleship around on a time schedule that necessarily reflects when we’re in session,” Kramer observed.

Due to an editing error the story incorrectly stated Griffin had resigned Jan. 5; his resignation was announced Jan. 29. It has been fixed.

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