Montgomery judge rejects effort to revive referendums on ambulance fee

By Michael Laris
Friday, September 24, 2010; 8:16 PM

A Montgomery County judge has rejected efforts to revive a pair of referendums that had been denied because of the way thousands of citizens signed their names.

Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg on Friday denied an appeal by a group opposed to a recently passed ambulance fee. Greenberg ruled that elections officials acted properly in finding that petition-gatherers had come up short, and ordered that a referendum seeking to overturn the fee be kept off the November ballot.

Greenberg noted that Maryland's highest court had ruled that petition-gatherers must follow the letter of state law. "This court is obliged to follow that command," Greenberg wrote.

Maryland law, as interpreted by the Court of Appeals, says voters must sign their name as it appears on the statewide voter registration list, or they must include the surname from their registration and "at least one full given name and the initials of any other names."

That meant that many voters who signed, for example, without their middle initial had their signatures invalidated, even though they might have used that same signature to buy a home or sign an application for a marriage license. Thousands of illegible signatures were also rejected.

"In the court's view, it takes modest effort to sign a legible last name," Greenberg wrote. "It is difficult to believe that the average person, with a modicum of effort, cannot impress upon a paper at least a rudimentary signature that would meet the statute's requirements. While not all of us have the talent to be calligraphers, surely most are able to sign legibly enough that a match with a printed name can be made."

Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, said he was disappointed, though not surprised, by the decision. He said the group would file an appeal on Monday to the high court. "We should know Monday whether the Court of Appeals will accept it," Bernard said.

"If it's upheld, it means that the right to referendum in Maryland has all but been nullified by an absurd interpretation of what constitutes a legitimate signature," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), who opposes the ambulance fee and collected some of the 52,677 signatures to take the question directly to voters. "When the requirement of counting a signature becomes good penmanship, you get this kind of absurd result."

Andrews added that the state legislature can fix the law to remove the emphasis on handwriting.

Greenberg threw out a separate suit by Republican council candidate Robin Ficker on a technicality earlier this week. Ficker had appealed a decision by elections officials to keep his term limits referendum off the ballot over signature issues, but the judge ruled that he had filed suit under the wrong name, Ficker said. The judge said it should have been filed under his own name, not that of a group of fellow activists, Ficker said. He's also considering an appeal.

"It shows that you can't fight city hall, because city hall is saying people have to sign their name the way city hall wants it signed, not the way the voter ordinarily signs his name," Ficker said. "To me, that's a control issue.

"People sign the way they want to sign, and it's difficult for them to change," he said.

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