Frederick charter-board petitioners to take legal action
Former commissioner Thompson will argue the case
Leaders of a failed petition drive calling for a special election so voters can pick who will write a document that would change Frederick County's form of government have decided to take legal action.
"Yes, we are going to proceed with legal action," said Ellis C. Burrus, a leader of the petition effort that failed Friday.
Ellis and other leaders of the effort met Monday night to discuss asking the court for a judicial review on if the removal of many of the signatures was correct.
A familiar face that roamed Winchester Hall for 12 years confirmed Tuesday that he was at that meeting and will argue the case pro bono.
"Yes, I will be representing them," said former Frederick County Commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson Jr., an attorney in Walkersville.
Thompson said he has until Monday to file an appeal in Frederick County Circuit Court.
"I will be filing later this week," he said.
Stuart Harvey, election director for the Frederick County Board of Elections, said Friday that state law requires at least 2,000 signatures on the petition. And while petitioners collected 2,915, only 1,741 were deemed valid by the Board of Elections.
Harvey said he could not comment on the legal action.
Of the signatures collected, 584 were signed incorrectly, Harvey said. Under state law, the individual signing the petition must print and sign his or her name. Either one or the other, or a combination of the two, must match that person's voter registration card.
But leaders of the petition drive take issue with the rejection of the 584 signatures, and point to new procedures for validating signatures based on a 2010 decision by the Maryland Board of Elections in response to a legal challenge in Montgomery County.
They contend that the new procedures state that the signer of the petition must include enough information to determine his or her identity. For example, a signature, a printed name, house address and date.
"The recent ruling clearly emphasizes that the signatures were sufficient," said Kai J. Hagen, a former Frederick County commissioner and a leader of the petition drive. "Based on that specific finding, it's a matter of interpretation."
Hagen said they also have concerns that signatures were deemed invalid if the signer did not include his or her middle initial. "We're asking the court is this constitutional?'" he said.
Finally, Hagen said they are upset with Harvey's rejection of 148 signatures that were collected on incorrect petition forms because they did not include a reference to Article XI-A Section1A of the Maryland Constitution, which spells out the rules for such a petition.
Harvey said Friday that he notified Burruss on March 28, after speaking with the state Board of Elections, that the reference to the Maryland Constitution had to be added to the petition forms. Harvey agreed to process the incorrect forms collected between March 11 and March 29. But he would reject any signatures collected on incorrect forms between March 30 and May 9.
Burruss said he took every measure to ensure that the petitioners began using the corrected forms. "I think we caught most of it," he said. "But you gotta give us a little slack. We couldn't capture them all."
Burruss said the rejection of the 148 signatures takes away the constitutional rights of everyone who signed the petition.
Harvey declined to say if the 148 signatures were on an incorrect or corrected petition.
"It is stunning and extremely disappointing that, knowing exactly what he said in his March 28 email, Mr. Harvey would choose to invalidate some of the signatures that were turned in on sheets already distributed and were in use," Hagen said.
Thompson said the underlying issue for a judicial review is whether the requirements to validate a signature on a petition impedes a citizen's constitutional right to petition for a special election of a charter-writing board.
Thompson said the Maryland Constitution allows people to petition for a special election, and that there is a limit to the requirements the Maryland Board of Elections can add.
Meanwhile, the nine people and three alternates appointed to the charter-writing board by commissioners will continue their work of drafting the document. The goal is to put the charter before voters during the 2012 presidential election.