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Judge rules Turf Valley referendum drive dead

A Howard County judge has ruled that the county elections board properly followed state law when disqualifying names on petitions that sought to block a supermarket that critics said would be too large.

Judge Timothy J. McCrone ruled late Monday that the board acted in accordance with Maryland law when it declared the drive to block the Turf Valley market dead on March 12, 2009. The elections board had decided earlier that a first batch of 2,603 names was sufficient to allow the campaign against a zoning change to proceed. A total of 5,000 verified voters is required to prompt a referendum in Howard County that would allow voters to overturn a local law.

In between the two rulings, the board learned of a December 2008 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in another case clarifying that state law requires petition signatures to either exactly match the name on voter rolls, or contain a person's full name — including middle initial — birth date and address as verification. The written signature must also match the printed name on the petition.

The cast prompted a debate over Maryland's strict referendum laws. Attempts to create a less onerous verification standard for petition drives have repeatedly failed in Annapolis. The most recent measure remained in a legislative committee until April 12, the last day of the session, when it died.

Marc Norman, who with others brought the Howard suit to overturn the local board's ruling, said he had not read McCrone's decision and did not know if an appeal is likely. A separate federal court challenge to Maryland's petition rules is pending.

Norman said his group had collected more than 9,000 signatures, following what the local board said were the proper rules, only to be told later they were disqualified. "There's something inherently wrong in that," he said.

McCrone heard the case in November, when board attorney Gerald M. Richman argued that Maryland's rules for signatures had never changed and the election board was simply following those rules.


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