"They are provided with a plane ticket, hotel costs, food vouchers and spending cash by the companies who hire them to do this," the police report stated.

One petition worker told police that firms sometimes hire them to "counter other companies by passing out pamphlets and 'blocking them by whatever means possible' from getting signatures," according to the report.

According to financial disclosure forms filed with the county, National Ballot Access has received payments totaling more than $350,000.

Greenberg Gibbons isn't required to file campaign finance reports that would disclose payments to Petition Partners because it was working against the referendum, not for it.

Neither petition company responded to requests for comments.

Ruth Goldstein, a community activist from Pikesville, said she encountered a signature gatherer who asked her to sign the zoning petition — and told her it was about keeping nightclubs out of communities.

"There is no question that signatures were fraudulently obtained," said Goldstein.

Kaplow called those allegations "complete balderdash.

"I don't see how many were confused by what they signed," Kaplow said. "Nobody was forced to sign anything."

But last week Baltimore County Attorney Michael E. Field urged county elections officials to reject the petitions, saying sponsors didn't give necessary information to voters when gathering signatures.

In a letter to the board, he said the petitioners should have provided voters with the "full text" or a "fair and accurate summary" of the question that would be on the ballot. The letter contends that circulators should have included zoning maps with the petitions when they approached people for signatures.

In a filing this week with the elections board, Kaplow responded that no maps were required, and the petitions met legal standards.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, whose district is one where the zoning decisions are being challenged, said council members are exploring whether they can regulate the signature gathering process at the local level. No council legislation has been introduced.

The Reisterstown Democrat said she heard "horror stories" from constituents about the way they were approached by petition workers.

"Many were aggressive and rude and disrespectful," she said.

Luedtke, the state delegate from Montgomery County, said Maryland should take a close look at the petition management industry.

"We need some clarity on how these drives are supposed to work, now that they're becoming more common," he said. "I think we're going to see more and more of these companies, and we need to make sure that what they're doing is above board."

He said he also plans to introduce legislation to increase financial disclosure requirements for petition drives.

"It's sort of an open invitation to fraud if you're creating a financial incentive based on signatures," Luedtke said.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Pikesville Democrat who represents a part of the county that has been a focus of the referendum, said he questions whether new rules are necessary.