The D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board would probably not rank high on any list of the city's most admired government agencies.
Virtually everyone interviewed who has had dealings with the ABC Board have at least a few unkind words to say about the efficiency, fairness or wisdom of the board. The panel enforces the city's complicated liquor licenses.
Much of the dissatisfaction with the ABC Board's performance may be inevitable, since the board frequently has to try to resolve bitter disputes between implacable enemies.
ABC Board deliberations are often tedious and technical, but the stakes can be large - particularly when the licenses are for businesses in the Georgetown and lower Connecticut Avenue areas, scenes of the most intense recent commercial development.
When the board voted last fall to reject an application from La Potagerie, a small French restaurant at 3209 M St. NW, the owners immediately shut down and sold the location to Crumpets, a pastry shop and ice cream parlor, losing, they say, more than $200,000.
It is virtually impossible for a restaurant to survive without a liquor license in Washington - fast-food operations aside. But aspiring restauranteurs frequently commit substantial sums of money to a project before being granted a liquor license, and occasionally they lose the gamble.
As a result of the Potagerie case, and the board's refusal to approve a license for the Georgetown Pierce Street Annex, a proposed 200-seat "California style cafe" on the site of a defunct Chevrolet dealership. Some Georgetown real estate developers say a chill has set in on plans for "upgrading" the area.
"There won't be a lot of restaurants going in," says one realtor and restaurant operator. "What you will get are fast food places."
But the Citizens Association of Georgetown, which argues that the area has reached a "saturation point" in business with liquor licenses, is no happier than opponents about the ABC Board's conduct.
The Potagerie and Pierce Street Annex cases are exceptions that prove the rule, according to attorneys Courts Oulahan and Christopher Keller, who have represented the association in a series of campaigns, mostly unsuccessful, against issuance of new liquor licenses in Georgetown.
The rule say Oulahan and Keller, is that the board tends to expedite matters for applicants and to make matters needlessly difficult for opponents.
Oulahan and Keller are particularly upset by a recent decision granting a Class C license - for on-premises consumption of beer, wine and liquor - to Delfinis, a Greek restaurant to be located at 1023 st St. NW.
The Delfinis decision dismissed several issues raised by the protestants - including the "saturation point" argument and potential traffic and parking problems - as outside its jurisdiction. Illegal parking, said the board, "is a problem more appropriately addressed to the Metropolitan Police Department."
"Various protestants," the decision continued, "stated that their grounds for opposition were that there were already too many alcoholic beverage licenses existing in the Georgetown area and that such licenses attracted too many people to Georgetown . . . The Board notes that it . . . must consider each application individually and on its own merits.
"The Board further notes that this request (for a moratorium on new licenses) could be addressed by the protestants to the District of Columbia City Council . . ."
In the Delfini decision, says Keller, board members "effectively kiss off" a whole range of factors that have been raised frequently by protestants. The board is "trimming its sails to fit its desired ends," he adds.
Mary E. Reed, deputy ABC staff director, says she is startled by such criticism. "The board is not at all interested in putting ABC licenses into people's communities who do not want them," says Reed.
On the other hand, Reed acknowledges, the board has to consider the money-raising side of its activities. "Every month of delay (in approving a license), we lose revenue for the government," she says.
Last year, the board put special emphasis on granting new licenses, according to Reed, which meant paying correspondingly less attention to violations of ABC rules by existing bars, restaurants and liquor stores.
Two years ago, the Citizens Association of Georgetown filed a lawsuit seeking to disqualify ABC Board members Julian R. Dugas, then the city's director of Economic Development, and James W. Hill, who succeeded Dugas in that post. Both men, the lawsuit argued, had conflicts of interest between their quasijudicial roles on the ABC Board and their fulltime government jobs involving the encouragement of economic growth.
The D.C. Court of Appeals rejected that lawsuit, but ABC Board critics have continued to accuse the board of blindly supporting economic growth with inadequate concern for neighborhood objections.
Joy R. Simonson, who was chairman of the ABC Board before home rule, agrees that the current board is more closely tied to the city's political leadership than hers was. But Simonson adds, "I lost a lot of patience with the Georgetown people for their absolutely indiscriminate opposition to every application."
D.C. police liquor squad detectives are also critical of the ABC board, particularly of what they see as the board's failure to investigate many ABC violations uncovered by police.
"I'm sure if I were on the other side and did not know what was happening. I would think the same thing," says Reed. But "we are all the same government," she adds. "We all want the same thing."
The ABC Board's "very short staff" is the only reason why it may neglect some violations, say Reed. The Board employs seven fulltime investigators, down from about twice that number of the late 1960s.
The investigators works daytime shifts exclusively, and most of their time is concerned with background checks and paperwork involving license applicants, according to Reed.
ABC regulations are another obstacle to effective enforcement says Reed. For Several years now, ABC staff and board members have been lobbying for changes that would include creation of a "nightclub license" to be restricted to nonresidential areas of the city.
Such a new class of license would end the present requirement that all businesses selling liquor by the drink maintain fullfledged kitchens and derive their "chief source of revenue" from the sale of food.
In spite of these obstacles, Reed promises a renewed emphasis on enforcement in 1978. The board has already dealt an unusual 45-day suspension to Clancy's Beef Palace, a Georgetown bar, she points out.
In a settlement reached with the Corporation Counsel's office, Clancy's agreed to plead guilty to four ABC violations - keeping inadequate records, employing a minor and two instances of allowing an underage entertainer to serve hard liquor.
Charges of selling liquor to minors were dropped along with a charge that Clancy's was still being managed by Ernest E. Byrd, despite a 1971 ABC Board order that Byrd, convicted in the shooting of two business associates, sever his ties with several Washington bars, including the Georgetown Clancy's.