The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics moved yesterday to clarify the wording of petitions that tenant groups plan to use to try to force a referendum on the city's recently enacted rent control law. But landlords continued to protest that the language is misleading.
The elections agency unanimously approved a more detailed summary of the proposed referendum that would appear on the top of the petitions that the tenant groups hope to use to solicit the required signatures of 14,000 of registered D.C. voters before the referendum could be placed on the November election ballot.
While approving the revised summary of the referendum, in which voters would decide whether to repeal four sections of the rent law, the elections board said a more loosely written version it approved last month was still acceptable. The panel said it would leave the choice up to a D.C. Superior Court judge who is hearing a landlords' suit against the elections agency for approving the initial version of the summary.
Judge Leonard Braman scheduled a hearing on the suit for today.
Gottlieb Simon, a leader of the drive to win approval for the referendum, charged that the lawsuit is a "highly transparent . . . delaying tactic" aimed at trying to keep the measure off the ballot.
The tenant groups, calling themselves the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing, need to collect the signatures by July 10. Simon said that "if opponents can keep you from getting on the street with the petitions, they have won."
Abraham J. Greenstein, a lawyer representing the landlords, said, "We are oppposed to the referendum, but if it's going to proceed, let people decide in an informed manner."
Greenstein described both summary statements as "defective. The new one is an improvement. It's still prejudiced." But Greenstein declined to say exactly what faults he found with either summary.
William Schultz, a lawyer from the Public Citizen Litigation Group, representing the tenants' groups, said the changes in the summary make it "slightly more informative. I believe either one is adequate."
The referendum, if it makes it to the November ballot, would give D.C. voters, the majority of whom are tenants, the chance to repeal four sections of the law approved April 30 by the D.C. City Council, including the provision that in 1989 would possibly decontrol rents on apartments as they become vacant.
In addition, the referendum deals with provisions that would possibly decontrol rents on single-family homes and buildings that were 80 percent vacant on April 30 and a section of the law on apartments in buildings for which a distressed property plan is in effect. The City Council, after weeks of debate, narrowly voted for the new provisions, which many tenants viewed as a weakening of their protections under rent control.
Council member John Ray (D-At Large), a major architect of the revisions opposed by tenants, said the fact that the tenant groups have now changed the summary on the voter petitions is "the first example of them having to admit they were not telling the truth" on the earlier summary. Ray said he believes the tenants have a right to seek the referendum, "but I'm generally opposed to it."
Six landlords brought the suit against the wording on the petition. In addition, four business groups, the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, the D.C. Builders Association, the Washington Board of Realtors and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, have joined the suit on the side of the landlords.