Howard petitioners take referendum issue to legislators

After the Court of Special Appeals struck down a petition drive to take parts of last year's comprehensive zoning bill to referendum; followed by last week's decision by the Court of Appeals, the state's top judicial body, not to take up the case, petitioners are looking for other avenues to make their voices heard.

On Aug. 13, members of the Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, the group behind the zoning petition drive, met with members of the Republican Central Committee to make their case. They say they want to see referendum reform pass next session, and they will support any candidate who is willing to back it.

"We're going to support politicians, Republicans or Democrats, who are strongly in support of referendum reform, not just those who pay it lip service," said Alan Schneider, himself a Democratic candidate for County Council in District 5. He's running against incumbent Greg Fox, the council's only Republican member.

Referendum reform is a statewide issue, and two members of the Howard delegation – Republican state Sen. Allan Kittleman and Del. Liz Bobo, a Democrat – each introduced bills in Annapolis last legislative session aimed at tweaking the referendum process to give citizens an assurance upfront that their petitions are correctly worded. The comprehensive zoning petition drive was denied by the county's Board of Elections because its language was deemed not to have met a "fair and accurate summary" standard, after petitioners had gathered more than 6,000 signatures.

Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat from District 13, said that although Kittleman and Bobo's bills had the full support of the Howard delegation, the House bill didn't make it out of the Ways and Means' election subcommittee because its chair, Del. Jon Cardin – who at the time was a candidate for attorney general – refused to support it.

Guzzone said that he and Bobo "sat with [Cardin]... for 45 minutes or more" on sine die, the last day of session, trying to convince him to help the bill move out of committee, but that the delegate had concerns about the statewide nature of the bill and supported a state Board of Elections request for more time to examine the bill's implications.

"I think there was a general concern on the part of his committee that it needed to be ironed out a little more," he said of the bill.

However, Guzzone said he and every other member of the Howard delegation were committed to making sure referendum reform gets reintroduced in 2015.

"We all co-sponsored the legislation," he said. "Every member of the delegation supports the citizens' right to referendum and doing so a fair and unencumbered way.

The issue of referendum reform has become a hot topic at forums and debates this campaign season, and has been addressed in blog posts by both Kittleman and his opponent in the county executive race, Democratic County Council member Courtney Watson.

Several other candidates, particularly Republicans (including Jody Venkatesan, Guzzone's rival for District 13 state Senate) have recently released statements and blog posts in support of the referendum movement.

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