The Museum

The Museum (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / April 4, 2013)

Black scuff marks line the staircase at 922 N. Charles St., left there by frustrated tenants kicking the wall in a vain attempt to make their neighbor, the Museum Restaurant and Lounge, quiet down. Most nights, tenants say, the sound of DJs hyping up the crowd rattles china cabinets and nerves alike.

"It's thump, thump, thump from the music," said Will Penn, 48, who lives in one of the apartments next door. Penn, like many other Baltimoreans who live near bars, said he has filed complaints using the city's 311 system but has seen nothing change.

"Next day I'd get an email saying, 'Your issue has been resolved,' " he said. Exasperated, he plans to move in with his girlfriend at the end of May.

Walter Webb, who runs the Museum, denied that it had a noise problem and said he has been targeted unfairly because he is one of the few black business owners in the neighborhood.

But complaints about the authorities' response highlight larger problems at the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners. State auditors reported last week that half the complaints made to the board via the 311 system were closed with no evidence of any investigation — something the agency's executive secretary acknowledged is "lazy and wrong."

The scathing report confirmed what many community leaders say they have long suspected: that the state agency is either unable or unwilling to respond to concerns. The audit also said liquor inspectors failed to carry out routine reviews, and closed some complaints before starting an investigation because they did not want city statistics on open issues to reflect poorly on them.

"Usually [I would] not speak out against an organization that's there to help us, but the liquor board inspectors don't help us," said Kevin Bernhard, president of the Highlandtown Community Association. "I've never seen one in my seven years in Baltimore City."

Close to 1,400 Baltimore businesses hold liquor licenses — including stores, bars and restaurants. Each must comply with a long list of regulations covering who can buy alcohol and when, along with restrictions on noise levels and crowd control.

The liquor board is a state agency and not directly controlled by city authorities, but it gives revenues from fees and fines to the city, and the city's budget funds its operations.

The board employs a squadron of 10 inspectors to check on problems; several inspectors have been laid off since the audit because of budget cuts. Webb said they have been out to the Museum numerous times in recent months and deemed the complaints unfounded.

"They're not playing with me," he said. "I think they're doing their job."

He acknowledged some problems with an older music system at the Museum but said it was replaced more than two months ago.

"We're willing to work with anyone to correct any problems," he said.

But in general, the audit found that in the inspectors' work is often not documented and that routine inspections are carried out only spottily. Two inspectors made just 41 visits in an entire year reviewed by auditors, who calculated that each inspector should be able to handle 872 inspections a year.

Samuel T. Daniels Jr., the executive secretary of the licensing agency, acknowledged many of the problems and said he was happy to talk about them because he has been "inspired to retire" sometime this year.

"It's lazy and wrong," he said of inspectors not properly investigating 311 complaints. He said the problems could be remedied by replacing a few of the inspectors.

The average salary for an inspector is $43,875, according to city data.

If the inspectors find that establishments are violating liquor laws, the board can levy fines and even take away licenses. But community leaders say they must do the work of inspectors themselves. A group of 10 neighbors can protest the transfer of a license or its annual renewal.

Mount Vernon residents have followed that path with the Museum, campaigning to have its license revoked when it comes up for renewal this year and filing pages of signed petitions with the liquor board. A hearing is set for April 18.

The Baltimore Sun was unable to review the Museum's liquor board file, which is supposed to include records of complaints and inspections, because it had been removed to City Hall in advance of the hearing.