Photo by bjackrian on Flickr.

Many of DC’s boards and commissions have deep-seated problems, like the Taxi Commission. The liquor license agencies, ABRA and the ABC Board, represent another serious case of dysfunction.

So many cases generate community-splitting free-for-alls leading to pseudo-Solomonic decisions that that businesses and communities become desperate, not knowing what could possibly happen.

Moreover, ABRA relies too heavily on complaint-driven “gotcha” enforcement. This creates a perception of uneven and unfair enforcement of rules and laws.

As an analogy, let’s imagine if the fire department operated like ABRA.

In most of our minds, the fire department is made up of guys that wear heavy coats and helmets and rush into burning buildings to save lives and use big hoses to put fires out.

But if that is all our fire department ever did, we’d probably have a lot more deadly fires. Our fire department also has fire inspectors. These are the guys that visit buildings when they are being built to make sure that there adequate means of egress, firebreaks between floors, and appropriate fire suppression systems.

Even more, they visit existing buildings regularly to make sure that extinguishers and alarms are functioning properly and they encourage people to practice fire safety and fire escape drills. And when buildings burn down, they show up and do studies to determine what went wrong so that they can learn how to prevent similar fires from breaking out in the future.

If we applied the ABRA structure to the fire department, it might be something like this:

A call comes into the fire department that there is a fire. They send someone out to see if there is a fire. They prepare a report that they saw a fire. On Wednesdays, the Fire Board meets to review reports of fire.

If the board determines that there is a recommendation that there is a fire, they create an order that says the fire should be put out. The firefighters then return to the scene and put out the fire.

The board then calls the building owner in to discuss how the fire happened. At this hearing, the building owner shows up and a local group of residents show up who think that bicyclists caused the fire. The board focuses on what the building owner can do to keep the bicyclists from starting more fires and gets him to agree to mitigating the threat of arsonist bicyclists.

Now, at the board’s direction, a firefighter might occasionally drop by to see that all the bicyclist arson measures are in place and if they aren’t he might write a ticket. So, in this building, bicyclists aren’t allowed to have candles on their tables or order flambéed desserts. Meanwhile, two doors down, there is a bar called “The Rolling Torch” where bicyclists are encouraged to juggle burning tires and set off fireworks but since no one has ever complained about that, no one ever realizes it might be a problem.

4 weeks later, the building catches fire again. At the hearing this time, a bunch of neighbors show up to complain that the problem has nothing to do with arsonist bicyclists, but the fact that the owner keeps running his gas supply line under a giant replica of a flaming Olympic cauldron. But the board refuses to listen to them because they didn’t file the appropriate paperwork with the fire board and therefore don’t have standing in the hearing.

ABRA’s mission is broad and vague

If an establishment requires an alcohol license of any kind, ABRA and the ABC Board have great latitude and control over that business’ operations. These two government entities are essentially the primary regulators for every business that sells alcohol.

The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) manages the administrative functions of handling paperwork, conducting investigations, and coordinating with the community. The Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) Board works in concert with ABRA to evaluate issues about licensing.

As with the Taxicab Commission, mayors plug in politically-chosen appointees. This exacerbates our city’s existing problems, many of which stem from councilmembers building ward-based fiefdoms, and the fact that political expediency often trumps good policy.

If an owner/operator has his or her license protested, the ABC Board hears the cases of the protestants and the licensee. If the owner/operator has an infraction of his or her license, the ABC Board will have a hearing to determine the severity of the issue and what should be done in response.

Working together, ABRA and the ABC Board control all aspects of an ABC license. Is it a restaurant, a tavern, or a nightclub? Can a retail store sell beer, wine, and liquor? What will be the hours of operation? Will there be dancing allowed? Can the establishment serve beverages outdoors? Can the establishment have entertainment? Has the licensee managed to get his trash removal vendor to come frequently enough?

These are all issues left to the discretion of ABRA and the ABC Board, and in many ways, it is astounding that an agency whose purpose is ostensibly to regulate alcoholic beverages has become such a dominant presence in our cultural and social landscape.

Broad calls for change

Laurie Collins, a long-time neighborhood activist and former ABC Board Member, proposed a set of reforms for ABRA and the ABC Board in a Georgetown Dish article. Specifically, she calls for removing ABRA from ABC Board supervision and making it accountable to the Mayor’s office, establishing a professional arbitration panel within ABRA, and relying solely upon the agency staff to handle questions that arise with regard to licensing. She suggests that the ABC Board should exist in a capacity that serves as a venue for appeals that cannot be arbitrated by the staff panel.

She’s right to call for reform. The structural deficiencies of the ABC Control Board that she describes in her article do indeed hamper the effectiveness and legitimacy of an important government agency. But reform needs to go even further.

As Natalie Avery pointed out, in addition to moving the ABC Board away from adjudication, ABRA needs to reorient itself to focus on mitigating and minimizing conflicts and negative impacts on the neighborhood or the community before they occur.

A high-quality urban environment requires a mix of commercial and residential uses. Invariably, the hospitality industry will be a component in a healthy neighborhood. Such businesses have an impact beyond the threshold of their establishments, whether it is the volume of music or crowds, transportation issues related to parking and sober travel, or the security of persons or property. Managing these impacts requires constant, professional engagement of regulatory agencies with stakeholders.

ABRA should grow and expand their outreach arm, which should connect business operators or prospective licensees with resources and training opportunities to help them better manage their impacts. Government can improve communication and facilitate conflict resolution when disputes arise.

There is a also a need for better coordination amongst agencies that play a role in managing and policing the hospitality industry, such as MPD, DDOT, DCRA, DPW, and FEMS. The proactive orchestration of agency, industry and community communication could go a long way toward reducing the need for a board with a heavy adjudicatory case load.

In addition, the community needs more centralized control from the Mayor’s office so that city policy can be coordinated with the Office of Planning, other DC agencies that have planning roles, and economic development initiatives. The current ABC Board membership, which relies upon a political balance of Council proxies, ultimately creates an environment in which anything goes as long as no one complains too much.

There are areas of the city that are more appropriate for large crowds and late operating hours. There are also areas of the city where smaller crowds and more restricted operation is a better fit. Making those types of determinations is every bit as important as deciding on the placement of a bus-stop or a signalized crosswalk. In fact, such determinations are inherently interwoven, and yet our current approach decides on them piecemeal.

Fundamentally, we currently have in ABRA and the ABC Board a very strong regulatory body without a clear sense of purpose. It has led to an environment where businesses, residents and civic associations can’t determine the likely outcome of any given decision.

Because of this, businesses and entrepreneurs can’t manage the risk of opening without a liquor license; residents and civic associations feel that they must engage in an adversarial relationship in order to have their concerns addressed; and the agencies themselves must cope with a pseudo-judicial body that must weigh political concerns, as well as evidence and procedure.

There is no reason to have political appointees manage the hospitality industry. It can be effectively regulated simply by relying on professional staff, supported by arbitration panels. Moreover, ABRA is much more likely to have success in developing and maintaining a healthy and vibrant hospitality industry that can appropriately serve as a complement to locally oriented shopping areas, large entertainment districts, or tourist attractions by adopting a collaborative partnership with business, residents, neighborhood associations, and other government entities, instead of serving as an enforcement team serving at the beck and call of a politically established board.

Update: Councilmember Jim Graham asked for a response from ABRA director Fred Moosally. Here is Moosally’s response:

ABRA’s FY 2012 budget, with your Committee’s leadership and support, contains a new community resource position intended to grow and expand ABRA’s community outreach arm — as sought by the article. Additionally, the suggestions referenced by the article, including to: (1) provide prospective and current licensees with additional educational resources and training, (2) improve communication and facilitate conflict resolution between applicants and residents, including before disputes even arise, and (3) increase the level of professional engagement between stakeholders and the agency, were three of the major reasons for the creation of this position in ABRA’s FY 2012 budget.