Howard voters asked to raise bar on petition drives

Howard County residents have tried four times in the past nine years to challenge local government decisions on taxes and land use by referendum and failed each time to get the questions on the ballot. They've been rebuffed by opinions of the county's law department and by the courts, getting hung up on legal technicalities and the details of how signatures are validated.

As difficult as it is to put a question on the local ballot, the bar would rise a bit higher if voters on Election Day approve one particular county charter revision, one of five changes proposed this year.

By the Charter Review Commission's account, the question of referendum signature requirements prompted the most public comment and discussion among members, although even this subject hardly made big waves during about six months the group met and held public hearings last year. According to minutes and participants' recollections, fewer than 10 people showed up for each of three public hearings, and those few who did speak took positions against the referendum signature proposal now on the ballot.

"I don't think it was a very controversial issue," says Michael Davis, a Columbia lawyer who served as co-chairman of the 15-member commission. He voted for the proposed change, which appears as "Question C," and says the requirements should reflect the fact that "a referendum, by definition, is an extraordinary act."

The only commission vote against the change was cast by Tom Coale, who says he figures it is difficult enough as it is for citizens to mount a successful petition drive.

"I can see this threshold being moved further and further away," says Coale, a lawyer from Dorsey's Search. "Those grass-roots resources are always going to be limited."

Under the proposed change, the number of valid signatures required for a referendum would likely move higher and would not be capped as it is now.

The referendum signature requirements haven't been changed since the charter was enacted in 1968, when the county population was about one-fifth what it is now. Under current rules, petitioners must gather a number of signatures equal to 5 percent of registered, or "active," voters, up to a maximum of 5,000. The 5,000 cap is the relevant figure, as 5 percent of registered voters is almost double that.

The proposal on the ballot would change that to 5 percent of those who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election, with no cap. This year, for instance, that would raise the number of required valid signatures from 5,000 to 5,390, as 107,804 voters cast ballots for governor in 2010, says county election director Guy Mickley.

Davis says the commission wanted a formula that would keep pace with rising population and fall in step with other counties.

Wicomico County requires valid signatures equal to 15 percent of registered voters. Dorchester and Calvert counties require a number equal to 10 percent of registered voters, and Montgomery County requires valid signatures equal to 5 percent of registered voters. In Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, the requirement is 10 percent of the total vote in the most recent gubernatorial election.

For statewide referendum initiatives, such as the questions pending this year on same-sex marriage and expansion of casino gambling, the requirement is valid signatures equal to 3 percent of the vote in the previous gubernatorial election. In Howard County, that would add up to 3,234 signatures, which would be fine with Russ Swatek, a Columbia resident who testified before the commission against the 5 percent proposal now on the ballot.

"I think it's a change in the wrong direction," says Swatek, who led an unsuccessful effort in 2010 to allow a countywide vote on the part of the Columbia redevelopment plan that called for 5,500 new homes and apartments downtown.

That referendum effort failed when the county Board of Elections ruled more than 1,000 petition signatures — about one-third of the total — invalid because they did not exactly match names on voter registration lists. A Circuit Court judge rejected an attempt to challenge the decision, ruling that a legal memorandum was not filed in time.

It was the latest of several unsuccessful referendum efforts since 2003, when an opinion from the county solicitor rejected a petition bid to challenge a local income tax increase. According to a news account, the county's attorney ruled that the tax increase bill was not subject to referendum.

In 2006, citizens challenging zoning decisions by the County Council gathered enough valid signatures for a referendum but ultimately lost in the Maryland Court of Appeals. The state's highest court ruled that the language of the petition did not make the issue clear enough to signers.

In 2009, an effort to challenge rezoning that would allow developers to build a larger supermarket in Turf Valley failed when most of the signatures were ruled invalid because they did not match the names on voter rolls. Marc Norman of Turf Valley, one of the leaders of that referendum drive, opposes the charter change, calling it part of a pattern of county government trying to block citizen participation.

"The fundamental problem is our county government does not want citizens challenging their decisions," Norman says.

Coale says there was discussion among commission members about when the last petition drive succeeded in bringing an issue to referendum, but no one could think of one. Mickley says he checked records dating to 1990 and found none.

At least one county charter change was adopted after being brought to the ballot via petition in the past 20 years, but such measures work under different rules than referendums on other laws. For charter changes, petitioners need signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, up to 10,000 signatures.

Given the poor record on referendum drives, Swatek says he'd be happy with a 3 percent or 4 percent requirement.

Davis says the commission never seriously considered the 3 percent figure, as it seemed out of line with other counties. The 5 percent figure seemed right, and "it was time to bring this part of the charter into the 21st century."

The other four charter changes are also meant to update or correct the charter, which was last revised in 2006. According to information provided by the county, the charter has been revised 13 times since 1973 — four times under the Charter Review Commission process, which is conducted every eight years, and nine times by County Council action or citizen petition.

Along with Question C, these charter revisions will appear on the ballot:

•Question A: Expands access to county records, bringing county rules in line with the Maryland Public Information Act.

•Question B: Allows unspent grant money in the budget to be carried over to the next year.

•Question D: Requires notices of pending bills and information on public hearings to be posted electronically as well as in print publications.

•Question E: Corrects typographical errors, removes outdated references and makes organizational changes in some charter passages.

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