Men and women armed with clipboards and pens have been common sights at grocery stores, libraries, farmers' markets and shopping centers in Baltimore County, seeking signatures on petitions to overturn zoning decisions through a voter referendum.
But many were not passionate local activists — they were paid by petition companies based in other states, hired by firms with ties to developers with interests in the zoning decisions. Some were accused by residents of lying to gain a petition signature. In one case, petition workers had a physical altercation outside the Cockeysville Library.
"It was sort of the Wild West out there," said Tim Maloney, a lawyer who represents a company trying to redevelop the Middle River Depot, one of the sites involved in the zoning fight. His firm opposes the referendum effort.
Paid signature-gathering is common in ballot initiatives around the country. Yet the practice is being debated in Maryland, where last year voters challenged three laws through statewide referendum. Some state lawmakers now want to tighten restrictions on the petition management companies, including a possible ban on paying workers for each signature they gather.
In Annapolis, Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said he would propose outlawing "bounty systems" that pay circulators for collecting signatures. He noted that such payments are illegal in voter registration drives.
The Baltimore County petition drive centered on the county's comprehensive zoning review. A coalition of development firms didn't like the results approved by the County Council in August 2012, and launched the drive to overturn zoning decisions in two districts.
The county Board of Elections could decide as early as next week whether to allow the issue to be placed on the 2014 ballot.
Meanwhile, another referendum related to the Middle River Depot has emerged. Paid petition circulators are seeking signatures for that drive as well.
Detractors allege petition companies can be aggressive, misleading and opportunistic. But referendum supporters say standards are so high to put an issue on the ballot, it's practically impossible without professional help.
"The citizens of Baltimore County should be pleased that there are business people willing to spend the money to bring this issue to the ballot," said Stuart Kaplow, a lawyer representing the Committee for Zoning Integrity, one of two political committees formed to promote the effort. "The only way to do it is this massive effort, and unfortunately, it costs money to be able to exercise our democratic right to put something on the ballot."
No one has successfully brought a local law to referendum in recent memory in Baltimore County. Petitioners are required to gather signatures equal to least 10 percent of the number of people who voted for governor in the last election.
That has proved a tough goal. In 2011, residents opposed to council redistricting failed to gather enough signatures for a county referendum. Last year, opponents of a bill to protect transgender people from discrimination also fell short of getting enough signatures.
But with the help of hired petition management companies, promoters of the zoning referendum gathered more than 170,000 signatures.
The drive has involved a battle between developers, some with competing interests.
The proposed referendum now before the Board of Elections has been funded by firms with ties to David S. Brown Enterprises and The Cordish Cos., as well as the owners of Green Spring Station and Garrison Forest Plaza shopping centers. That coalition hired National Ballot Access, a Georgia company, to collect signatures.
Other developers, including Greenberg Gibbons and Middle River Station LLC, are fighting the referendum because they would benefit from the council's zoning decisions. Greenberg Gibbons, which wants to build a project called Foundry Row at the former Solo Cup site on Reisterstown Road, hired Petition Partners, an Arizona company, to counteract the signature collectors.
Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, said his company hired the firm to dispel misinformation from his opposition.
"We knew they were purposely misleading people," he said.
According to Baltimore County Police, the two sides clashed on an October afternoon in Cockeysville. A 55-year-old woman was collecting signatures outside the library when three men in Halloween masks arrived to protest her effort. It wasn't long until the two sides got physical. Library patrons had to pull them apart and called police, according to the police report.
No one was charged, a police spokeswoman said. All of those involved — the woman and the masked men — were hired by the petition companies. The police report indicates one of the workers told officers that they are contacted by recruiters by phone, "and they give their dates as to when they can assist with whatever campaign is active," the report said.
"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.
"The voters can certainly be trusted to do what they think is right," he said. "It's up to you as a citizen to make an informed decision on whether or not you want to sign it. The only way an individual can be coerced is if they allow themselves to be coerced."
Zirkin said he encountered petition workers in various places during the local drive.
"I had a good give and take with some people," he said. "I was approached a number of times, and some of them were well-informed, and some of them who were collecting signatures weren't well-informed."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states have tried to regulate the companies in a variety of ways, from banning payment per signature to making signature gatherers wear badges that show they are hired to do the job. The Supreme Court has ruled that banning paid circulators violates the First Amendment, according to the conference.
Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said his research has shown fraud is not more likely when signature collectors are paid.
"Volunteers sometimes are overly zealous, and will be forging signatures or doing illegal activities with respect to collection because they're zealots," he said.
He also said it's not uncommon for citizens to misunderstand what they're signing when they put their names on a petition. "Citizens don't necessarily know what they're signing," he said, "just as lawmakers sometimes introduce bills which they don't fully know the ramifications of."
David McCuan, a professor and expert on the petition industry who teaches political science at Sonoma State University in California, said the Baltimore County case highlights the spending behind such efforts.
"You have a moneyed interest against a moneyed interest, developers against developers," he said. "When that happens, obviously spending goes way up."
When so much money is spent on a local issue, "the stakes are raised for everyone concerned," McCuan said. "Whether you are a well-heeled, well-moneyed interest, or you are a citizen- based interest, your ability to pay to play is one of the most important variables."
"Democracy has become big business," said Kaplow, the lawyer for the political committee behind the referendum drive. "It's unfortunately naive to think it doesn't cost money to bring an issue to the ballot."