Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman testified Wednesday in support of legislation that would reform the process for approving petitions for referendum statewide.
The bill was introduced by Del. Robert Flanagan, a Republican from Ellicott City's District 9B, and is a bipartisan effort, with co-sponsorship from the rest of Howard County's delegation in the House.
In his testimony before the House's Ways and Means committee, Kittleman said referendum reform was "very important for the folks in Howard County.
"But," he added, "I think it applies statewide."
State law requires that people who are trying to bring local legislation to referendum provide a summary of that legislation on their petition. Flanagan's bill would require a chief official from a county's board of elections to determine whether that summary is sufficient. If it isn't, the official would be required to provide an explanation, within 10 days -- although an amendment proposed for the bill would reduce the timeframe to seven.
The bill comes after a group of Howard County residents unsuccessfully tried to take about a dozen decisions made in the county's blockbuster, once-a-decade comprehensive zoning law to referendum. The county's board of elections approved the format, but not the language of their petition, and the group collected more than 6,000 signatures in support of their goal by November 2013.
But after submitting their signatures, the elections board reversed course and denied the petition, arguing that the summary language was not a "fair and accurate" representation of the zoning bill. An appeal of the decision worked its way up to the state's Court of Special Appeals before it was definitively denied.
"They could have been told earlier, and not have gone through that three or four month process of getting those thousands and thousands of signatures, which as we all know is very difficult to do," Kittleman said.
Kittleman submitted his own legislation for referendum reform in 2014, while he was serving as a state senator. Last year's effort made it out of committee in the Senate but failed in the House's Ways and Means elections subcommittee.
Kittleman said he thought the new bill "makes sense" and "is certainly not a partisan issue."
The committee did hear some testimony against the bill from the Maryland Association of Elected Officials.
Katherine Berry, a board member from the group, said the bill asked too much of local elections officials, who would likely need legal guidance to make determinations about the sufficiency of a petition's summary.
"It is going to be a lot of back and forth between the election director, the local board attorney and the Attorney General's office," Berry said.
She also said the seven-day window for election officials to make a determination was too short, particularly because referendum petition drives typically happen during the already-busy primary election season.
"There is a lot of other things that are happening... ballot production, election judges training, etc., as well as early voting," Berry said.
At a public hearing on state bills earlier this month, Lisa Markovitz, who led the comprehensive zoning petition drive in Howard, suggested that the bill require the state's Attorney General's office to make the ruling on petition language. Wednesday, she said she was able to support the bill even with local elections officials in charge of the sufficiency determination.
"I preferred the Attorney General to provide a certification, but with the amendments [including a shorter response time and more specific language on what BOE officials must state as a reason for insufficiency], I was able to support the bill with local boards providing it," Markovitz wrote in an email Thursday.
Kittleman said after testifying that he thought the local boards were capable of making a determination.
"They were able to do that in Howard County. They said [initially] that they don’t make the determination and then at the end they said it was not sufficient. So, someone at the Board of Elections was able to do that,” he said.
Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook contributed to this story.