The formal release today of a report on ways of modifying Montgomery County’s public liquor control system was accompanied by a short debate among several County Council members over the vibrancy of the county restaurant scene in general – and Bethesda’s in particular.
Perhaps the major takeaway from the exchange at the council’s weekly meeting was to illustrate the lack of council consensus for possible changes in the present control structure, as a newly created ad hoc Committee on Liquor Control prepares to begin its work later this month.
The chair of that panel, at-large Councilmember Hans Riemer, lauded the report by the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) as a “long overdue, very thorough review of the way Montgomery County does liquor control” – a control regimen, Riemer noted, that was adopted 80 years ago when the county was a largely rural jurisdiction with a population of 50,000.
“We are becoming a very vibrant jobs center,” Riemer continued. “As such, we need to be able to offer the quality of life that communities like ours have – great night life, great restaurants, things to do. And I think the study shows that the service provided by our Department of Liquor Control is a hindrance to the kinds of businesses that we want to thrive in this county in order to provide us with this quality of life.”
That prompted at-large Councilmember Marc Elrich, who opposes privatizing most functions of the Department of Liquor Control (DLC), to gibe, “I continue to believe that the availability of craft brews is not what makes a community desirable or not.”
Added Elrich: “Montgomery County, and Bethesda in particular, have some of the densest number of restaurants of any location in the country. Bethesda has long been famous for incredibly high density of restaurants, and good quality restaurants. I don’t think we have any lack of places to go to eat.”
District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner quickly moved to challenge Elrich’s sunny view of the local restaurant scene.
“As one who has represented Bethesda for the past eight years, I hear from our restaurants almost daily with respect to the frustration they face and the competitive disadvantage they face in having to deal with our county liquor control. You can’t thrive that way,” he said.
Berliner went on to tell Elrich: “I agree with you: I wouldn’t be interested in this issue if this was all about craft breweries. This is about the quality of life. I hear it from residents who go in [to a county liquor store] and try to find a nice bottle of wine and then [say], ‘Actually, I think I will go to Tysons, I’ll go to Virginia, I’ll go outside Montgomery County to buy the quality of liquor I desire because I can’t get it in my county store’.”
Aligning himself with Riemer on the liquor control issue, Berliner concluded, “I have grudgingly come to the view after eight years on this council that this is not a system that can be fixed. We have to do something seriously different in our county.”
Council President George Leventhal, an at-large member and a Takoma Park resident, wondered if Berliner was perhaps being a bit too negative.
Acknowledging that “probably the restaurant environment in the District of Columbia has outpaced us,” Leventhal – noting that he dines out in Bethesda “with some frequency” – declared, “I don’t want to suggest that we have an undesirable climate for people to go out and have fun and drink in moderation.”
Added Leventhal: “None of us want to pile on and suggest…that there is some kind of mass exodus of people fleeing the county. Most of the complaints we get are that we have too many people coming in and too much growth and overcrowded schools and overcrowded roads – even in the wealthiest part of our county, which happens to be Mr. Berliner’s district, where there’s a lot of concern.”
Leventhal went on to note that Berliner “is convening a community meeting to talk about how are we going to cope with all of this growth and all of the demands on our schools and our roads, which suggests to me that a mass exodus, even of affluent people, is probably not occurring.”
For her part, District 4 Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who represents the eastern portion of the county, questioned what all the fuss was about.
“It’s very interesting to sit here and listen to the excitement and the passion around it,” she mused of the liquor control debate. “And although I believe it is a very important issue, I just want to make the statement for our constituents that we also are very passionate and get very riled up about issues around hunger and poverty and all kind of other things.”
She added, “I want to make sure folks don’t somehow get the impression that in Montgomery County this is our top billed, most serious concern ever.”
Professing herself “neutral” on the question of whether liquor control remains in public control or is privatized, at-large Councilmember Nancy Floreen noted, “At the end of the day, it comes down to how you replace the $30 million dollars associated with the Department of Liquor Control?” – a reference to the DLC’s approximate annual profit funneled to the county government.
“So have a great time on Friday mornings,” she laughingly advised the three members of the ad hoc Committee on Liquor Control – Riemer, Elrich and Leventhal.
The ad hoc panel has scheduled a series of Friday morning meetings beginning on Feb. 27, and Elrich seems prepared to do just that.
“I look forward to more robust discussions on public health and public safety. That is … something that affects everybody, not just the night life economy, and I think that needs to be seriously considered,” said Elrich, who also chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee.
“I’ll have other comments about the sources for the pro-privatization [arguments] that were cited in the [OLO] report, but I’ll save that for when we get into committee,” he told his colleagues with a smile.
Elrich, generally viewed as occupying the left wing of an avowedly liberal council, appears to be have in mind studies cited in the OLO report that were published by the Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives and George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.
The latter studies question connections between privatizing alcoholic beverage control and public health and safety. Both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Mercatus Center appear to have financial or organizational ties to the Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who are a major funding source of the tea party movement.
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