In response to a group of Howard County citizens attempting to bring a referendum of more than a dozen comprehensive zoning decisions to the ballot this November, state Sen. Allan Kittleman said he plans to introduce a bill that would require local elections boards to certify, upon request, the language of a petition before petitioners begin to collect signatures.

The bill, which Kittleman – a West Friendship Republican running for county executive – said he hopes to file by Monday, would require the head of a local Board of Elections to certify that the content of a petition, in addition to its format, is sufficient to be placed on the ballot if the petition gathers enough signatures. 

“We have residents who have spent two months getting thousands of signatures,” he said, in reference to the Howard County group, which collected more than 6,000 signatures but whose petition was ultimately rejected by the county’s Board of Elections because of language issues. “That’s very frustrating.”

County Council member Courtney Watson, a Democrat running for county executive, wrote to the state delegation in December requesting they take a look at referendum law.

"In light of recent petition failures, I believe that the Board of Elections needs guidance from the state and that the state law needs to be made clear... The state legislature must ensure that the voice of the citizens can be heard through a fair referendum process," Watson wrote in a letter which ran in the Howard County Times Dec. 12.

In 2010, Watson sponsored a bill to make clear "that county law has a minimal role in the referendum process which is governed by state law," she wrote. 

Del. Liz Bobo, a Democrat from Columbia, said she thought county election laws should be clarified to smooth the referendum process. “I think we need to clean up the vocabulary,” she said.

If it’s passed, the bill would be applicable to local jurisdictions statewide.

The inspiration for the bill stems from an ongoing dispute between the Howard County Board of Elections and a group of Howard residents unhappy with zoning decisions made during the county’s once-a-decade comprehensive zoning process.

The group of residents, Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, collected enough signatures last fall to meet the county election law threshold for a referendum. Petitioners want to repeal several zoning decisions, including much-debated changes in Maple Lawn South, Savage, Elkridge and elsewhere.

Though the county BOE approved the petition’s format in August, Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley said in November that the board wouldn’t certify the petition because of issues with the language used in a summary of the proposal, which is required to be “fair and accurate,” according to Mickley.

The citizens' group has appealed Mickley's decision to circuit court. 

Assistant State Attorney General Sandra Brantley, who spoke with Howard County’s State House delegation on Wednesday, said advance determination for a petition at the state level generally includes an examination of both format and content.

The Attorney General’s office is required by the state constitution to verify that petition language is acceptable, she said. But that requirement doesn’t apply to local governments.

Brantley said local elections boards often don’t examine petition language in advance because of tight deadlines built into the referendum process. Local elections officials must currently make a determination about petition format, when requested, within five days.

“Your local election board did not do anything unusual or untoward,” when it decided not to rule on the referendum petition’s content before petitioners gathered signatures, she told the delegation. “From my understanding, with the local boards, their feeling is… the more time you take to pre-approve these [petitions], the less time the petitioners have to go out and get signatures.”

Kittleman said he favored allowing petitioners to move ahead and let the courts, rather than the Board of Elections, decide whether petition language is valid.

“I think if somebody opposes the petition, let them take it to court and prove the Board of Elections wrong,” he said.

“Whether you agree with having a particular reason for having a petition is one thing, but I think everybody can agree the process should be fair,” he added.