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D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board has become the twilight zone of the city’s regulatory agencies. When residents appear before the board to protest a bar’s liquor license, they enter the “dimension between time and space” of which Rod Serling spoke. It’s a dimension in which residents complain of being treated rudely—even more rudely than at the motor vehicles or water department, which LL finds hard to imagine—while bar and restaurant owners are treated like royalty.
In a hearing involving the license for Howard Liquors, for example, Foggy Bottom resident Barbara Kahlow was permitted by the board to discuss the decline of property values for homes near the liquor store—but she was not allowed to submit written research. In another case, the liquor license for Mount Pleasant’s Arcos del Espino was yanked when the owner failed to show for a hearing on his license renewal. But the license was reinstated even after the owner missed two subsequent hearings. The board decided that, because the owner was Spanish-speaking, he may have misunderstood the procedures.
And the board’s rulings on the license renewal for Georgetown’s Crazy Horse tavern have perplexed and exasperated the protesters and the bar’s owner and attorney.
“It’s pretty nutty,” says Georgetown attorney Ed Schwartz, who recently took charge of the community’s four-year fight to strip the tavern of its liquor license.
Representatives of the city’s lucrative hospitality industry don’t disagree with Schwartz’s assessment, although they find fewer faults with the board than the residents do. “There’s a great deal of confusion out there,” said one industry rep, referring to recent actions by the board. “You’re looking for a logical explanation in an illogical situation.”
The twilight zone’s current supervisor—and focus of intense community anger—is Mary Eva Candon, appointed by Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly last year to fill an unexpired term as ABC Board chair. That term expires next week. Kelly has nominated Candon for reappointment, but her confirmation has been delayed by At-Large Councilmember John Ray, architect of a 1988 law giving communities more power to block liquor licenses. Ray believes that Candon lacks the experience to chair the powerful board. He also objects to the political activities she’s engaged in during her tenure.
To defray her costs for attending the Democratic National Convention last year, Candon solicited funds from people and firms who have an interest in the board’s actions. She held a fund-raiser at Georgetown’s River Club, which the ABC Board regulates. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates potential violations of the Hatch Act forbidding government employees from participating in partisan political activities, found that Candon violated the act but declined to fine her because the violation was not “knowing or willful” and because she pledged not to do it again. Similar complaints filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance are still under investigation.
The Candon impasse crumbled earlier this week when, after an intense lobbying campaign,Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith decided to support her nomination before the council’s five-member Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, chaired by Ray. Smith had promised Ray he would not support Candon, who lives in Smith’s ward. In turn, Ray had promised Smith that the volatile issue would die in committee, without a vote. But Ray succumbed to the pressure and relented. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who had lobbied for Candon, and Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson also backed Candon when the committee voted Tuesday afternoon. The vote was 3-2 in favor. The confirmation now must go before the council, where approval is expected.
The effort to prevent Ray from bottling up Candon’s confirmation peaked on the eve of the vote. Evans persuaded downtown developer Stephen Goldberg to call Ray and press for a vote. Liquor lobbyists and bar and restaurant owners also were pushing hard. But Candon proved to be her own most effective lobbyist. She promised to preside more forcefully in her next term and to restrain members from being rude. She also warned critics that she is probably the most pro-community appointee on the five-member board, and that, if she is rejected as board chair, the next nominee could be less sympathetic. Or, the position could remain vacant until after next year’s mayoral election because of conflict between the mayor and her political rival, Ray. That was enough to convince ABC Board watchdog Alice Kelly of Mount Pleasant to withdraw her opposition, giving Smith the cover he needed to side with Candon. Kelly, one of Smith’s constituents, last year formed the D.C. Alcohol Control Coalition, comprised of residents who wish to combat “the over-saturation of alcohol [that] is just destroying many communities.”
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“I personally think that she has not done a good job at all,” Kelly said of Candon on Monday. “But at this point, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She has convinced me that she is, in fact, a strong supporter of communities.” But she has yet to convince other critics. “[Candon’s] problem is she can’t control her pit bull, JimO’Dea,” said Georgetown resident Don Shannon. O’Dea, an attorney who took his seat on the board in January 1991 as one of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry‘s last appointments, declined the opportunity to comment on his own reputation as the rudest dude on the board.
“There is a problem with the board,” Candon concedes. “I’m not it.” Part of that problem, she claims, is that residents aren’t realistic. “I believe a few people are alienated, and it’s because the law creates expectations for the public that cannot be met. The public expects a complaint to result in immediate suspension or revocation [of a license].” Those actions, she adds, hold dire consequences for business owners and economic development. So the board treads cautiously—although it has revoked several liquor licenses, including that of Annastasia nightclub in Georgetown. (The nightclub has appealed the ruling.) But residents complain that board members bend over backward to accommodate liquor license holders, while placing extreme evidentiary burdens on protesters.
LL will briefly try to sum up the complicated and long-running Crazy Horse case to illustrate current complaints about the board.
The battle to deny a new liquor license to this 28-year-old establishment at 3259 M St. NW has staggered on for years. Residents recently hired a private investigator who videotaped patrons leaving the tavern, in an attempt to prove that the place is a nuisance and illegally sells alcohol to underage drinkers. At an August hearing, the board agreed to watch the videotape, but turned off the sound after Crazy Horse’s attorney, Steve O’Brien, objected that the tape contained hearsay.
Troy Froemming, son of the investigator hired by the tavern’s neighbors, testified at the hearing that he had been served alcohol nearly 100 times at Crazy Horse while underage. He is expected back in the witness chair on Oct. 20, when O’Brien will attempt to destroy his credibility and prove that people who drink in glass houses shouldn’t throw beer mugs. O’Brien declined to discuss the case, saying “I consider it unprofessional to litigate cases in the newspaper”—an apparent slap at Schwartz.
The hottest dispute here is a procedural one. The case began in 1989, but has remained unresolved because of the board’s backlog. Residents originally protested Crazy Horse’s license application on the grounds that the tavern disrupted the neighborhood’s peace and quiet. In February, however, the ABC Board suspended a hearing on these issues after Crazy Horse’s owner announced he had found a buyer for his embattled tavern. Here’s where the dispute arises: Candon now claims that she suspended the hearing to allow the residents time to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the new owner. But both sides were under the impression that the original case would be set aside and that the board would take up Crazy Horse’s request to transfer its license to the would-be buyer, a former Prince George’s County bar owner who is seeking to become the only African-American bar owner in Georgetown. This move pleased O’Brien; a transfer hearing could be completed much more quickly. Schwartz was pleased, too: Since Crazy Horse had not yet had its license approved, he figured the board would have to treat the transfer as a new license application.
The law states that new liquor license applications may be killed if 50 percent plus one of the registered voters living within 800 feet of the proposed business sign a petition opposing it. Those petitions, however, cannot be filed in renewal cases. At the board’s June meeting, when Schwartz sought to file his petition, O’Dea proposed that the board return to the original case. That way, if the board renewed Crazy Horse’s license, the license could be transferred to the new owner. Schwartz saw this as a move to keep his protest petition from being filed—and restrict community input. Confusion reigned, and the meeting was adjourned.
The board resumed the hearing in July, when Candon ruled that Schwartz could not file his petition because the transfer hearing was a continuation of the original case. If the residents wanted to file their petition, she said, they should have done so back in 1989. To mollify their anger, Candon gave a stunned Schwartz the option of reviving the community’s original complaints against Crazy Horse. Schwartz chose to do so, since the residents know little about the new owner and are not ready to present evidence in a transfer hearing. This time, it was O’Brien’s turn to look surprised and infuriated.
“My ruling is pretty clear,” Candon said this week.
About as clear as M Street on a Saturday night, judging from the reactions of all parties in this case.
Footnote: Candon mixed it up with Ray outside the council chambers Monday, shortly after Dave Clarke took the oath of office as the new chairman. Candon approached Ray to inquire why he still opposed her re-appointment as ABC Board chair. When Ray reminded her he was committed to voting against her, Candon abruptly replied, “That’s OK. I don’t need your vote, anyway.” She quickly wheeled and stormed away.
When Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis asked to speak to members of Plymouth Congregational Church during the recent council chair race, they turned her down. Members of the church, located at North Capitol Street and Riggs Road on the eastern edge of her ward, have decided they’re tired of hearing from Jarvis only when she’s running for office. Jarvis, however, showed up at a crab feast hosted by the church, only to be greeted with literature and posters touting Dave Clarke. The Plymouth Congregational Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler chaired the Save Our City Committee, a union-backed coalition that turned out the vote for Clarke on election day….
Two weeks ago, the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) bombarded city residents with notices to pay their traffic tickets or else. But these tickets are one to two years old, and many recipients swear they’ve paid their fines. Once again, DPW seems unable to determine which tickets have been paid and which haven’t—and once again is making the citizens pay the price. DPW did the same thing earlier this year when it sent information to the Department of Finance and Revenue (DFR), prompting DFR to dispatch letters warning homeowners that fines were owed from several years earlier and that liens would be placed on their properties if they failed to pay up. Many people who received these notices didn’t live in those residences at the time of the supposed violations.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.