Those in Howard County who want to channel the power of the ballot box to challenge local government decisions are going to have to work a bit harder to do it in elections to come, thanks to the vote Tuesday on one of five county charter changes. Whether this was the change voters wanted to make when they endorsed the change in overwhelming numbers seems to be a matter of debate.
By a margin of 73.2 percent to 26.8 percent, voters agreed to change the rules on how many signatures petitioners have to gather for a referendum to challenge local legislation, doing away with a 5,000-signature cap. Instead, petitioners will need a number of valid signatures equal to 5 percent of the vote in the previous gubernatorial election, which this year would have raised the number from 5,000 to 5,390.
It's a small change, about 8 percent, but given the difficulties petitioners have had in recent years getting enough valid signatures, some feel any shift in that direction is too much. The Charter Review Commission voted 14-1 to recommend the change, agreeing that the revision would allow the number of required signatures to reflect rising population, and put the Howard County requirements more in step with other jurisdictions.
Tom Coale was the lone vote against the change, but now that the matter is settled, he says he's satisfied at least that it was a considered decision. He has faith in local voters, he says.
"For Howard County, the presumption has to be at the beginning that the voters knew what they were doing," says Coale. He says he considers the lopsided outcome a statement "supporting certainty in the legislative process in county government. … They were looking to make sure when the County Council passes something, it has to be a high threshold" to reverse it.
Michael Davis, who served as the commission's vice chairman, says he was pleased but not surprised that the changes were adopted by such large margins. While there were some people who spoke against the petition signature change during the commission's three public hearings, it was "not a groundswell" of opposition, he says.
"The logic used to make the change was found acceptable," says Davis, adding that he thought the commission's three hearings and a meeting held before Election Day by the League of Women Voters gave people enough opportunity to understand the questions.
Russ Swatek, a Columbia resident who spoke against the change at a commission hearing, is not so sure.
"I feel a ballot doesn't really give enough information" to understand the issue, says Swatek. He thought even a 200-word description or material giving arguments for and against the measure would be helpful.
As it was, voters got 84 words summarizing the charter change, but not explaining that it would mean petitioners would have to gather more signatures.
Swatek helped lead an unsuccessful effort in 2010 to challenge by referendum a portion of the downtown Columbia redevelopment plan that called for 5,500 new homes and apartments. The petition drive ultimately failed, as the county Board of Elections ruled more than 1,000 signatures invalid because they did not match voter lists. Petitioners tried to challenge the ruling in Circuit Court, but a judge ruled that a legal memorandum was not filed on time.
That was one of four petition efforts in the past nine years to challenge local government decisions on land use and taxes that failed for a number of reasons.
Susan Gray, who helped lead a successful petition drive in 1994, says she was not happy with the charter change and does not believe that the wording of the ballot question made its effect clear.
"You would have no idea that the charter change would raise the number of signatures," says Gray, a land-use lawyer. Asked why she thought the measure was adopted in a landslide, she said, "The only thing I can think of is people had no clue as to the meaning of what the charter change was."
As lopsided as the vote on this question was, it was the closest vote of the five charter changes. All the rest were adopted by margins of 8-2 or 9-1.
The charter was also revised to bring county law in line with the Maryland Public Information Act, making clear that "any person" has the right to see government agency records, and allowing departments to charge a fee for copies.
The other three questions were technical "housekeeping" items: allowing unspent grant money in the budget to be carried over to the next year; requiring notices of pending bills and information on public hearings to be posted electronically; and correcting typographical errors, removing outdated references and making organizational changes in some passages.