For the last few weeks, several state delegates from Prince George's County have been working to persuade their colleagues that three unelected officials should have the power to decide what sort of music and dancing is permissable in the country's bars and restaurants.
These delegates are not bending ears and calling in favors because they personally object to the bands and dancers that now perform in bars. In at least one case, in fact, they don't even think the law they are sponsoring is a good one.
But they are lobbying for the bills because the mayor and council in their home district, College Park, are always complaining to them about the groups of sometimes rowdy youths who congregate along a few blocks of Baltimore Avenue near the University of Maryland.
What the leaders of College Park would like to do is remove the unruly students and other troublesome youths from their town without investing tax dollars in a police force. For the last several years, they have been attempting to accomplish this goal by eliminating what they believe attracts the troublemakers -- several bars that provide live entertainment.
And so, the delegates who represent College Park are pushing broad and in some cases, they say, constitutionally questionable state laws that in reality are directed at a few noisy blo cks and four bars -- the Bastille, the Varsity Grill, the Rendezvous Inn and the Paragon.
Their campaign, is an example of how state legislators are often pressured into attempts to solve strictly local problems to please the interests back home.
"This is happening because the city is on our backs," one of the delegates explained. "We're under a lot of pressure to do something for them."
The legislators, Dels. Timothy Maloney, Pauline Menes, and Kay Bienen, are sponsoring bills that would allow the county liquor board to attack Baltimore Avenue's troublesome youths by placing strict conditions on the liquor licenses of all county bars. The measures would allow the board to revoke the licenses of those owners who did not comply.
In the view of the three delegates, the bills would give the three-member liquor board needed authority to protect the interests of citizens whose lives are disrupted by noisy bars and discos.
Opponents say the measures represent a blatant attempt to legislate the College Park bars out of business with the help of the liquor board, which consists of three politically connected men who serve largely at the pleasure of the county's legislators.
"College Park has a legitimate problem," said William Meyers, an attorney who represented the county liquor retailers before the delegation. "But they are trying to solve it by legislating a few businessmen into the insane asylum and out of business. That's not a fair way to do it."
As evidence, Meyers and other opponents of the measures point to the license conditions that the liquor board has tried to impose in the past. In one case, the board required the Bastille bar not to admit any customer who could not show a receipt from the bar parking lot.
And last summer, the board attempted to ban "punk rock" from the Varsity Grill, defining punk rock bands as those that used "a frenzied hard-rock manner" and offensive names. Both conditions were struck down by circuit court judges, and the judge in the Varsity Grill case, Sylvania Woods, ruled that the board could not legally impose such conditions on liquor licenses.
It was those court problems that prompted the license restriction bills the delegates are now introducing, along with a related measure allowing the liquor board to appeal circuit court decisions like the Varsity Grill case to higher courts -- at the cost of thousands of dollars to tavern owners.
The county delegation, after several debates, killed the measure permitting circuit court appeals at its Friday meeting. The other bills, which have been the object of several delaying tactics by the College Park delegates, are expected to come up for a final vote this week.
Opponents of the bills, including most of the members of the county delegation subcommittee that considered them, suggest that the liquor board is not the proper authority to impose subjective restrictions on entertainment, and that the bars are not the right object of a campaign against disorderly conduct.
But St. Clair Reeves, the College Park Mayor who, along with his council members, urged the bills on the delegates in meetings last fall, insists: "We only want to eliminate people who think they have a right to make a million dollars. Why should I hire a police force if I can eliminate the source of the problem. Most of these bar owners don't live in Prince George's County, anyway."
Privately, at least one of the College Park delegates agreed with his nominal opponents that the bill granting appeal powers to the liquor board is a bad one." Said this delegate: "We're asking people to kill it."
And Menes says she is not certain tht another College Park measure -- making it a crime to possess an open alcoholic beverage container in public -- is constitutional.
Nevertheless, the delegates say they have little choice but to sponsor and support the bills for the sake of their irritated constitutents.
"The people feel terribly frustrated by this problem," said Menes, "and they want answers from their elected officials -- quickly and immediately. "They don't want to hear why you can't do something or why something isn't possible -- they just want to know what you did to help them."
The problem for Menes was demonstrated clearly one afternoon a few weeks ago when she argued the open-container bill before a county delegation subcommittee. Delegates who opposed the measure raised so many objections to it that Menes was finally silenced.
Then, Del. Charles Blumenthal, the chairman of the subcommittee, asked Menes to join the other delegates in voting against the proposal.
"No, no, I can't do that," Menes replied, "or you just wait -- I'll be twisting in the wind back home."