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?