A petition drive to force a referendum on the awarding of the lucrative county cable televison franchise for the northern part of Prince George's County fell short of the required number of signatures by the deadline Monday night.
The county Board of Supervisors of Elections reported yesterday that Citizens Against Backroom Legislation (CABL) submitted signatures of 9,858 registered county voters, 142 short of the 10,000 names needed to place the question on the November ballot, by the 9 p.m. deadline.
The petitioners were protesting awarding of the north county franchise by the County Council to Storer Cable Communications, Inc., a Miami-based group represented locally by former county executive Winfield M. Kelly. CABL charged that Storer won the hotly contested franchise because of council members' political ties to Kelly, rather than on the merits of Storer's proposal.
The referendum drive sparked a flurry of charges and counter charges between the citizen's group and Storer, which embarked on an expensive advertising campaign to convince citizens not to sign the petition. Kelly spoke to civic groups two and three nights a week for the past few weeks. Kelly estimated that Storer spent about $33,000 on the advertising, including $25,000 for about 100,000 leaflets sent to registered voters throughout the county two weeks ago.
Yesterday, CABL members complained that the elections board refused to stay open to accept signatures past Monday's 9 p.m. closing time. CABL attorney James F. Vance said that elections board director Robert Antonetti had told him the office would stay open until 11 p.m., but Antonetti denied that.
"They were a little slow in getting the signatures," Vance said of his clients. "They should have worked a little harder, a little earlier."
Vance said that CABL had hoped to collect 12,000 signatures to include a "safety margin."
Last month the elections board rejected CABL's first batch of about 5,100 signatures, saying the petitions used to collect them were improperly worded.
CABL has filed a lawsuit seeking to force the board to validate that first batch of signatures. But because the hearing on that appeal is not scheduled until March 2, after the Feb. 22 deadline, CABL went ahead with trying to obtain the full 10,000 signatures by Monday.
The elections board accepted the second installment Monday, pending the resolution of the lawsuit.
Members of the group are hoping that the court will not only validate all the signatures but will grant them an extension in which to collect more, citing the chilling effect of the elections board action.
"We're still in there, but hanging by a thin line," said state Del. Thomas Mooney, a CABL organizer.