Sunday, November 22, 2009

Referendum Rights and Wrongs

Much has been made about the rights of citizens being marginalized in recent attempts to overturn local zoning decisions through referendum. The last straw for many activists occurred when the Howard County Board of Elections reversed an earlier decision and threw out over 80% of the petition signatures they had originally certified in the petition to stop Harris Teeter from building a new store in Turf Valley. This effectively killed the referendum.

The first point I’d like to make that is that the right to referendum is not a federal right. There is no federal right to referendum. The United States Constitution does not provide for referendums at the federal level. Rights to referendum are only granted by the states. This fact did not stop Paul Kendall, Frank Martin and others from seeking redress in the federal courts. US District Judge, J. Frederick Motz has now dismissed these efforts twice.

I should also make it clear that I am not against referendums. I am against misrepresentation. The petition drive against Harris Teeter was handled very poorly by its organizers. When I was approached by someone who claimed to be representing the Howard County Citizens Association (doubtful) outside of a Safeway store in Ellicott City, I was asked if I would sign a petition against “more big box stores in Howard County.” No mention was made of either Turf Valley or Harris Teeter.

The threshold for getting an issue on the ballot in Howard County is too low. Only 5,000 signatures are required which has not changed even as the county’s population has mushroomed over the past forty years. It shouldn’t be impossible to petition for referendum but it shouldn’t be easy either.

And finally, if Paul Kendall, Frank Martin and Susan Baker Gray truly believe that our rights are being trampled on, why did they initially sue the county for $10 million instead of working to fix the problem through legislation?


Anonymous said...

Citizens' right to referendum is not a federal guarantee. However, it is protected and guaranteed by the MD constitution and Howard County charter.

Having addressed that, the real question surrounding the board of elections reversal is whether it unconstitionally restricts everyone's right to vote. This is because petition verification is required for the electorate to exercise their right to vote for a candidate, political party or ballot question.

The tragedy of this ongoing circus is that some people will go to any length to protect this county's politicians and the developers they prostitute themselves for.

Bob O said...

I think you miss the point on referendums.

The original referendum issue in America had nothing to do with Federal or States' law. It went like this:

"When the Redcoats come by, have several muskets loaded. Start with the officers, and work you way down."

Seemed to work at Concord and Lexington.

Seriously, I think the point here is that the county BOE is splitting hairs and dodging imaginary musketballs with the signature/name verification issue. And this leads to citizens not trusting their government.

Oh, have you seen recent polls?

As to the number of signatures needed for a ounty referendum, what are the guidelines? Five percent? Ten percent?

Why not let "The People" decide?

JustTheFacts said...

WB... you've completely confused the federal lawsuits. Norman isn't involved in any of the filings by Kendall or Gray.

What's this crap about $10 Million? None of their petition signature filings ask for money.

How about doing some research to confirm the propaganda you spew as facts?

Anonymous said...

If you want to keep things proportionate to when the 5,000 signature threshold was first applied to referendum petitions in this county, then let's also keep the ratio of county councilpersons per person similarly proportionate to then. What the heck, county execs per person, too.

Otherwise, quit whining that someone someday might get an issue on the ballot via referendum with the current threshold, and still at that point need not just 5,000, but a majority of voters to agree.

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Anonymous said...

And borrowing a line from WB, well there you have it. The people have spoken (and we want the right to referendum).

wordbones said...


I mistakenly lumped Marc Norman in with the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuits. Marc is a plaintiff in the Circuit Court proceedings not the US District Court proceedings. I have edited this post accordingly.


Buffalo Guy said...

"Citizen's" absolutely should have the right to a referendum. But in my opinion, a group of petitioners that were organized by a labor union has no business pretending to be protecting our community. If casual observers like myself can see the underlying agenda, so too can the judges.

Anonymous said...

If you want to get riled about unions, consider that we pay taxes for public schools and the kids are there a total of 23 weeks per year. We're paying full time salaries to people who don't have the kids for 1/2 of the year. THAT is one powerful union and they have off work every election day.

Lotsabogeys said...

Anon 8:20 pm,

The conspiracy that you allege would have to involve the HCBOE, the MD attorney general, Federal Judge Motz, and potentially a Distric Court Judge. One word sums up this allegation - laughable.

The first Kendall/Martin/Gray (and others) lawsuit that asked for $10 million was about not being able to petition to referendum certain land use decisions.

JustTheFacts said...

Lotsa... yes, they were seeking judicial review of the County's long standing practice of making land use/zoning decisions by utilizing mechanisms that prevent citizen challenges (through the County Charter's right to referendum). As part of their claim, they included $10 millon for damages.

This is completely separate from citizens signing a petition and being disenfranchised when the Board of Elections certifies their signature and then comes up with "New Rules" to invalidate more than 85%.

Lotsabogeys said...

The Kendall/Gray federal lawsuit about the petition drive did ask for compensatory and punitive damages that would have been determined by the court.

JustTheFacts said...

Lotsa... the damages language is standard boiler plate.

Also, in reading Judge Motz' rulings (on the Kendall/Gray cases), it appears that his focus is primarily related to whether they raise federal issues as opposed to judging the merits of their claims.

The only thing that seems clear is that he'd like to see these actions decided by the state courts.