Assembly delegation conflicted over change in petition rules

The Baltimore Sun

The county's General Assembly members are conflicted over the mix of local and statewide issues in the roller-coaster effort to petition to referendum a County Council bill permitting a larger grocery store at Turf Valley.

They say they don't want a missing middle initial or the use of a nickname to disqualify an honest signature on a petition. But they're leery of retroactively changing state law.

"The whole situation is troubling," said Del. Guy Guzzone, who chairs the House delegation. "I feel bad for the citizens, but the law is the law. It requires the wisdom of Solomon."

The council unanimously approved increasing the maximum allowable size of the planned grocery store, tripling the 18,000-square-foot limit set in 1993. But Turf Valley resident Marc Norman, Angela Beltram and a group of grocery union employees launched a drive to get the 5,000 required signatures to put the issue on the ballot next year.

After the board declared the first batch of names valid, board attorney Gerald M. Richman discovered a Court of Appeals ruling that said Maryland law requires petition signatures to be rendered just as they appear on a person's voter registration card, or full name including middle initial. Also, the signature and the printed name as rendered on the petition have to match exactly.

The board reversed course, invalidating 85 percent of the signatures.

At a county delegation meeting Wednesday in Annapolis, the focus was on state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer's emergency bill (SB1067) that seeks to retroactively negate the harsher aspects of a Dec. 19 Court of Appeals ruling in a Montgomery County case.

That decision resulted in the about-face by Howard's elections board, which invalidated the seemingly successful petition drive against having a 55,000-square-foot, nonunion Harris Teeter store at Turf Valley.

"I'm concerned with the fact that you put your instructions [for petitions] on your Web site, and the petitioners followed those instructions. You confirmed the petitions, and then you came back and invalidated them. Do you have a concern about that?" Del. Elizabeth Bobo asked county elections officials.

"It was most unfortunate, but I can't un-ring that bell," the board's chairwoman, Ann Balcerzak, told legislators.

But Balcerzak and several other board members said they're skeptical of retroactively changing the law. Several county legislators agreed, including all three Republicans (Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, and Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller). Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass said she, too, opposes retroactive changes in state law.

Kasemeyer's bill would make the proposed law that eases signing requirements retroactive to Dec. 1, 2008. If passed, it would breathe new life into the Turf Valley referendum drive.

"You want to make sure the fix doesn't create unintended problems," said the Senate delegation's chairman, Democrat James N. Robey.

Kittleman said he now believes the drive "really wasn't a citizen effort."

"Instead of helping John Q. Public, we're actually helping a union battle," the senator said. "I do want a fix to go forward, but I'm against retroactivity."

Ulman fundraiser

More than 400 people attended County Executive Ken Ulman's fundraiser at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville on March 19, including former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who gave Ulman his start as a volunteer campaign worker and later as a staff member.

Attendees paid $100 to $1,000, and the event grossed about $200,000, officials said. That gives Ulman about $500,000 with more than a year until the election.

No opponents have yet surfaced for Ulman's expected re-election campaign, and county Democratic Party leader Michael C.A. McPherson predicted that any Republican would have a tough battle.

But Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, who helped GOP upstart Charles I. Ecker defeat incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Bobo in the 1990 county executive race, said that while money is important, it's not everything.

"It certainly is intimidating, but not insurmountable," Bates said.

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