One of the groups organizing a petition drive with the ultimate aim of preventing slots at an Anne Arundel County mall is paying a private firm to help gather the 19,000 signatures required for a ballot referendum.

The Maryland Jockey Club recently hired FieldWorks, a Washington-based group, to organize its effort for a referendum on the casino site, said Tom Chuckas, president of the Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park racetrack. Chuckas declined to say how much his group is paying FieldWorks, adding that the amount is still being determined.

"We're making progress," Chuckas said. "Part of this is making sure the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted, training the people so that there aren't errors. This is what [FieldWorks] does for a living. It's highly organized."

Magna Entertainment Corp., the track's owner, bid for the county's sole slots facility license but was rejected because it didn't pay the required state fees. Magna has filed a protest of the state's decision to reject its bid.

Meanwhile, the anti-slots coalition of neighborhood groups, Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, has also begun gathering signatures. Rob Annicelli, head of the group, said their effort, which is coordinating with the Jockey Club, is strictly volunteer.

The Anne Arundel County Board of Elections certified the petition in late December, allowing the groups to begin gathering the necessary signatures to put the issue before voters in the fall. Baltimore developer David Cordish's 4,750-machine slots facility, planned for a parking lot near the food court of Arundel Mills mall, was approved Dec. 21 by the County Council. If enough county residents sign the petition, voters will be able to decide whether to reject the casino site.

County Executive John R. Leopold, a slots supporter, said the state's citizens already voted on the issue of slots in referendum.

"My concern is that a vested financial effort is at work here instead of a citizen initiative," said Leopold, adding that the casino jobs are "so essential."

Both Chuckas and Annicelli said they are "cautiously optimistic" that the drive will be successful, despite stricter rules on the state's referendum petition drives.

Under the new rules that the state election board imposed in March 2009, people signing petitions must use either their full name, including middle initials, or sign their name exactly as it appears on election board voting rolls. In addition, a printed name required on a petition must exactly match the accompanying signature.

"We're aware of the strict rules," Annicelli said. "We don't think it's going to be an issue. We've asked our volunteers to do quality-control checks. We know the strict rules and we're following them."

Slots opponents have until Feb. 5 to gather the needed signatures.