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Arundel officials dispute ruling on slots referendum signature

Anne Arundel County is asking the state's highest court to throw out a judge's decision that state election law overrules local counties, a request that if granted could cause some contested petition signatures to be rejected in an ongoing battle over a proposed referendum on slots at Arundel Mills mall.

The county's brief, filed Tuesday by county attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson, addresses only the narrow issue of jurisdiction over referendums and does not weigh in on the overarching issue of the legality of the referendum. A lower court judge used state standards, rather than local rules, to apply a more lenient standard in evaluating allegations of signature fraud in the referendum process.

In the brief, supported by four other Maryland counties — Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Montgomery — Hodgson said the judge's ruling "would … erode the long-standing authority of charter counties to establish their own policy and to self-govern."

Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled in June that the referendum was illegal because the zoning legislation to authorize Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. to build a billion-dollar casino is part of an appropriation package. According to state law, appropriations — or spending allowances — cannot be decided upon by voters at the ballot box.

Still, Cordish, which is challenging the referendum, did not gain much traction with its accusations of fraud. Silkworth only invalidated about 400 signatures; a Cordish subsidiary had asked for more than a third of the 23,000 accepted signatures to be tossed. PPE Casino Resorts Maryland, which would run the casino, filed suit in February alleging massive fraud in the referendum effort.

The effort was financed by the Maryland Jockey Club, which hopes to build a casino at its Laurel Park track, and was organized by community groups.

In his ruling, Silkworth found that the county election law requiring a circulator of petitions to have "personal knowledge" of the information on the referendum signature sheet was pre-empted by state law that requires the validity of the information to be true "to the best of the circulator's knowledge."

Lawyers for PPE had argued for the judge to use the county's standard, which they said would have helped invalidate many of the signatures.

Lawyers for community groups and the jockey club are appealing the lower court's opinion, which, if upheld, would pave the way for Cordish to construct a 4,750-unit slots parlor at the mall. The appeal is scheduled to be heard before the Court of Appeals Tuesday.

An attorney for PPE said the brief was "entirely consistent" with its position.

"The … brief submitted by the counties is entirely consistent with our position that the Maryland Jockey Club's petition to submit to referendum the Anne Arundel County slots ordinance was required to comply with county law under long established principles of home rule," attorney Anthony Hermann said via e-mail.

Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney for the Jockey Club and Citizens Against Slots at the Mall, said the brief is not about the legality of signatures. Rather, it "states an important point that home rule powers, including the right to referendum, cannot be vacated or amended without express statutory authority and none exists."

Hodgson disputed the notion that his brief was designed to be helpful to either party.

"I would like to make it very clear that in filing this amicus brief, it is not our intention to take one side or another in the larger question of whether or not the bill should go to referendum," said Hodgson. "It would be inaccurate for attorneys for either side to make more of our brief than that."


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