Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A referendum denied...

This has surely upset several people…

A citizens referendum challenging scores of rezoning cases has suffered a major, and perhaps fatal, setback now that Maryland's second-highest court has invalidated the ballot measure on grounds that it gave residents too little information about what the measure would do.

The decision, by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Special Appeals, will stand without a successful last-minute appeal to the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court. Because the referendum was scheduled for the November ballot, the case is being handled on an expedited basis, giving the Howard County Board of Elections until July 6 to appeal.

…The ruling by the Court of Special Appeals, made June 21, addresses neither the county's process nor its approval of the rezoning cases, but only whether citizens were properly informed of Comp Lite's provisions when signing a petition seeking the referendum.

Maryland law, the judges wrote in their opinion, requires that a referendum petition contain either an accurate summary of the provisions being challenged or the full text of the legislation enacting the zoning changes.
I’ve always thought petitions were somewhat suspect. Legal notifications aside, it seems to me that many people sign petitions almost reflexively or in an effort to placate the person holding the clipboard.

Regardless of my petition misgivings, it’s not surprising that adequately informing signers of the Comp Lite referendum presented problems.
The Comp Lite legislation, approved by the County Council last year, contains 38 separate and distinct map amendments and 49 pages of text amendments, totaling 91 pages, the court's opinion notes.

The opinion also points out that the organizers of the petition drive had considerable difficulty in writing a summary of the Comp Lite provisions. The Board of Elections, the court noted, rejected their first five attempts as legally insufficient.

In the final version, the organizers used essentially the title of the Comp Lite legislation, which the board accepted.

Even that language, critics of the ballot measure claimed, was "not comprehensive in scope" and thus could not meet state requirements. The court agreed. "We conclude . . . [the petition] does not satisfy the 'fair and accurate summary' requirement imposed by state law," the three-judge panel ruled.

Was there something prohibiting the petitioners from attaching a copy of the legislation to the petition forms? To be sure, a 91-page report is a lot to carry around on a clipboard, but it would guarantee that your signatures pass muster, right?

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about this. While I wasn’t necessarily a supporter of this (or really any, for that matter) referendum, I’m sympathetic to COPE and others who worked so hard to get signatures and put the Comp Lite decision up to the voters. That said, I did find this bit revealing:
Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., who wrote the opinion, said previous courts have held that the public must be informed of whether rezoning "upzoned" or "downzoned" property, and he noted that the petition's summary failed to tell voters that few of the Comp Lite cases were controversial and faced no opposition from nearby residents.
I understand that it’s hard to engage potential signers in a lengthy discussion about the good and bad parts of Comp Lite and certainly when you’re advocating you want to paint your side in the best possible light. But laws like these serve to ensure that those with only a momentary interest in an issue at least have some objective idea of what's going on.

Meanwhile, here’s a round up of reactions from various players.
"I've been saying this all along," said County Councilman Charles C. Feaga. "This decision is a good one. I hope it stands."

But Angela Beltram, a former councilwoman and a principal in the organization that pushed the ballot measure, said future referendums would be jeopardized if the ruling is not overturned.

…"The Board of Elections approved it, and it seems to me they have to appeal," she said. "I hope they would appeal, or when are you going to have a referendum?"

Frank Martin, a frequent critic of the county's planning process, denounced the ruling.

"How are my rights being fairly represented by this decision?" he asked. "The clear majority knew exactly what they were signing. ... I don't know what will happen ... but COPE has learned, don't fight city hall. We're all learning that the hard way."
There’s definitely some anger. Is it, given the circumstances, warranted? To whom will it ultimately be directed? How will this affect the elections?

For the best take on this whole thing, let's turn to the most maligned bureaucrat in the county.

Regardless of the outcome, Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said she believes the county and public will benefit from the controversy.

"For better or for worse, it has called a lot of attention to the planning process," she said. "I think you'll see changes that will make the process more transparent."

Always look on the bright side of life...

Finally, Howard County Blog’s entry on this topic is a rundown of irrelevant quotes by Ken Ulman, yet no mention of Feaga’s quotes, which are actually relevant to this story and when compared to what Ulman said in the past are abjectly anti-citizen. But as a newly-potential candidate for Republican Central Committee, one must not risk offending any true blue party-mates. Combine this with his absurd posting of a commenter’s even more absurd conspiracy theory and it’s a good old fashioned Ken Ulman bashing over there today.

So much for treating everyone equally poorly, eh?


Anonymous said...

A copy of the entire bill was attached to each petitioner's clipboard. Each signature page clearly stated that an entire copy of the Bill was immediately available. Many folks that I approached requested and reviewed the entire Bill.

The law required that a fair and accurate summary be on every signature page. The judge's decision indicates that they could not advise how a summary of a 91 page bill with scores of map amendments (maps) be summarized on the back of each page. The County code- as someone correctly pointed out states that the title of the Bill is a fair and accurate summary. The State Code is less specific.

Petitions may be suspect- but when thousands upon thousands of folks sign them- there is reason to believe that people are just not satisfied with the zoning and development.

It is the right - and the only right - to appeal a comprehensive zoning decision. If the legally proscribed process doesn't work- than the voice of the people is effectively silenced. The Democratic party has always been a staunch supporter of voice of the people- and a protector of individual rights... will they allow that voice to be silenced because of a vote that happened along partisan lines? Or will they speak up and act as the true representatives of the people?

Mary Catherine

Anonymous said...

One more thing...

Here are just a few of the hidden gems in comp lite:

* Reduction of setback requirements from 30' to 0' to open space, from Planned Office Research commercial zones.

* A Rite-Aid (commercial zoning) placed- without public testimony, without advice from the Planning Board, DPZ or the Route 40 Task Force on Route 144 directly across from the HCYP ballfields- on a residentially zoned lot- at the introduction of the then councilman from COLUMBIA-at the last possible minute. (which might be why another post referred to "back room deals".) Councilmen should never make zoning decisions without the advice, opinions and comments from the planning board and/or DPZ. It leaves them wide open to speculation.

*Adding thousands of new residential units along the Route 1 corridor in an area where schools are already overcrowded

*Creating a zoning overlay for Chatham- that could bring dense residential use to a commercial area- also in an area where school redistricting has been an annual event- and where roads and intersections are beginning to fail.

These issues, buried in the 91 page document- introduced as part of a universally declaimed process are just a few of the problems inherent in this Bill. Opponents of the referendum have done a good job as tagging this fight as a "one note" issue about a Korean church... but it simply isn't true... its just a bedtime story to sedate the masses. (is it working for you?)

The comments from Mr. Ulman on the other blog are unfairly lumped together and it is absolutely accurate to point out that the same contradictory comments could be found from nearly all the councilmen... but here's the thing... If the councilmen who voted on this issue are questioning the process... contradicting themselves... then its a true indicator of a problem.

Citizens from Highland, Clarksville, Fulton, Ellicott City, Elkridge, Marriottsville, and other parts of the County spent weekends gathering signatures. Enough signatures were gathered within 30 days to take this issue to referendum. And still more were gathered.

The truth is that if you built in the widest possible margin of error- there were more than enough citizens who wanted the right to vote on this issue in November. To paint this as an issue of the citizens not being bright enough to figure out what they were signing... (in one of the highest educated communities in the U.S.) or as an issue over a single church... is a slam to the citizenry.

As we approach the anniversary of our independence.. the beginning of our right to free speech.. the end of taxation without representation- ask yourself this question..

Is your voice heard? Are you represented?

Mary Catherine

hocomd said...

Feaga isn't running for election. Ken Ulman is running for office.

As a potential candidate for Howard County Central Committee I am not going to start holding my nose when I see something I don't like. I stand by every positive and negative thing I have said about Charlie and other Republicans.

Feaga is a pro-development/pro land rights guy. He sees it black and white. I don't.

Ulman's quotes are relevant. The 2005 quotes were statements he made about the referendum. The 2006 quotes were related to his zoning process legislation.

Anonymous said...

Good post and good comments.

If the hill is going to be made this steep for appealing comp lite, then I expect a hornet's nest is going to get stirred up, both relative to future comprehensive zoning events and to scrutinizing current zoning and development regulations and processes that aren't in the public's best interest and taking corrective action to get them fixed.

mary smith said...

Mary Catherine speaks for many of us. We are not being heard.

In addition to paying closer attention to the zoning process instead of trusting our elected officials to represent the citizenry, I'm hoping we pay closer attention to the judges who are being appointed, and by whom they are appointed.

Mary Reese was recently appointed to District Court judge, where a significant land developer lawsuit was to be heard a few years ago.
Whether or not she can separate her new role from her old, described as representing some of the largest land developers in the county by one recent article, presents an amount of work on her part that is unlikely.

Hopefully we’re learning that the roots and ties our elected officials have with land developers run very deeply.

hocomd said...

Developers are people too. They just have more money than the rest of us. I sat at a ball game in Tampa next to a developer. Tampa is exploding with development and he told me that it more or less the same issues we face in Maryland.

We agreed their has to be a happy medium that protects the rights of land owners and that of the larger community.

With the defeat of the referendum I wonder what Chris Merdon might propose in terms of legislation. Probably nothing - look what happened to Ken Ulman when he tried to rush a solution through the Council - that would be immediately impactful. Anything at this point will look political.