Appeals court affirms dismissal of Columbia petition case

Maryland's second-highest court has thrown out an attempt by residents to revive a failed petition drive challenging Howard County's plan for redevelopment of downtown Columbia.

The Court of Special Appeals turned down Thursday a challenge by Russell Swatek, who with a group called Taxpayers Against Giveaways organized a petition against a zoning amendment approved by the County Council in 2010. The group had sought to bring the measure before voters as a referendum.

The county's Board of Elections turned down the petition, saying the group didn't collect enough valid signatures. Swatek then appealed in Howard County Circuit Court, but the matter was dismissed because his group had not filed a required memorandum explaining its legal arguments.

"A memorandum would have narrowed the arguments and framed their issues, thereby assisting the court in making an informed determination. Absent this, appellant may have spearheaded an unguided argument that could have convoluted the purpose of a judicial review," the decision said.

Kevin M. Joyce, the attorney representing the group, said he was disappointed.

"I think it's a shame," he said. "The arguments we had made were pretty clear and concise."

He said the results of cases that have been decided since the petition was disputed shows the Board of Elections was wrong to turn down many of the signatures the group submitted.

The Board of Elections had found 2,139 valid signatures on the first batch of petitions in April 2010; a minimum of 2,501 was required. Taxpayers Against Giveaways submitted 3,491 signatures, but nearly a third were thrown out because of illegibility or other problems.

The Maryland Court of Appeals released a ruling last year that said a petition signature does not have to be legible if enough other information provided by the signer shows that he or she is a legitimate voter.

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