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Blues Fest concerns brewing

May 10, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

Because of an overlooked law, the Western Maryland Blues Fest has been granted the wrong type of liquor license for its June 3 music festival in downtown Hagerstown.

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It was unclear Wednesday whether the licensing mixup would prevent beer from being sold during the outdoor Blues Fest.

For at least 10 years, the Washington County Liquor Board has been issuing "picnic" licenses to nonprofit groups holding special events no matter what day of the week.

The board, officially called the Board of License Commissioners, recently found out that the picnic license law applies only to Sunday events. Another type of license applies to other days of the week.

The Liquor Board issues about 100 picnic licenses a year for adult softball league tournaments, festivals and political parties, said Chairman Donald L. Mellott.

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Mellott and the county's two other Liquor Board commissioners said they don't know how the mix-up occurred.

But they said they were worried that bringing it to light now might jeopardize the success of the Western Maryland Blues Fest, which has been granted a picnic license, good on Sundays, for its Saturday street festival.

"If you're going back to that other law, the Blues ain't going to have no fest," said Mellott.

The problem was discovered about two months ago, when Washington County lawmakers considered making changes to the local liquor laws for approval by the Maryland General Assembly. The delegation decided to postpone changes to get more public comment, McKee said.

Before they did so, however, Liquor Board members read a draft of the proposed changes and questioned an existing section on Sunday-only picnic licenses. They thought it was a mistake.

Washington County Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee said the lawyer who drafted the bill explained to them that's what the law says.

McKee, R-Washington, got confirmation from the Maryland Attorney General's Office, which he passed along to the Liquor Board last month.

In a March 16 letter, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe said the Liquor Board can issue a "special Class C" license for special events to be held on Monday through Saturday.

Despite the advice, the Liquor Board chose not to change its long-standing practice, Mellott said.

The "special Class C" license has more stringent requirements, including a requirement the license request be advertised in the newspaper, and takes about three weeks.

Mellott said Liquor Board members got legal advice and decided to follow their own rules, which were published last year after a public hearing.

But their lawyer, John Salvatore, said he agrees with the attorney general. The Liquor Board does not have the authority to expand the liquor laws without the legislature's approval, he said.

Liquor laws can be confusing because some apply to the entire state and others, such as the picnic license, are unique to each county.

"It's really hard to keep track of all of them to make sure it's consistent," he said.

Blues Fest organizer Carl Disque said he was glad the Liquor Board was not changing its practice because of a little-known law that can be easily fixed during the next legislative session.

"There doesn't seem to be a reason to be overly legalistic. One would hate to see some sort of new interpretation of something disrupt such a wonderful thing," he said.

Event organizers have shown that they have been responsible with the license and have received no complaints about the sale of beer, he said.

Beer sales raised $13,000 at last year's event. The money was split between the event and the Washington County Arts Council, a nonprofit that holds the picnic license.

The Liquor Board issues about 100 picnic licenses a year, most of them for weekends, Mellott said.

The law that provides for a Sunday-only picnic license dates back to 1965, according to Rowe's research.

Mellott said he didn't know how long the Liquor Board has been issuing the picnic licenses for other days of the week. It's been the practice ever since he was appointed to the board 10 years ago, he said.

Mellott is hoping to resolve the problem during the 2001 session of the General Assembly.

McKee said he had no opinion about the picnic license mix-up.

"I would like to think they would do what the law says they should do. It's not my role to tell them how to do their job," McKee said.

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