ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 23 -- A Democratic candidate for Anne Arundel County executive announced today that he plans to file a lawsuit aimed at preventing the local government from keeping a property tax limitation initiative off the November ballot.
Former Annapolis mayor Dennis Callahan said his suit will ask a Circuit Court judge on Friday to delay action on an earlier, county-sponsored suit challenging the tax measure's constitutionality until after voters have had the opportunity to express their preference in the matter.
"I say let the voters decide the issues that affect their pocketbooks, not a bunch of lawyers," said Callahan, one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for county executive. "Why is the goverment so afraid to let people speak on this issue?"
Earlier this month, the administration of County Executive James Lighthizer (D), who is not a candidate for reelection, joined four local residents in suing the taxpayer group that sponsored the tax initiative, claiming that it usurps the lawmaking powers granted to the County Council under Maryland's constitution. The original suit is scheduled to be heard in Circuit Court on Monday.
County officials today dismissed Callahan's plan as a blatant attempt to further his own candidacy by playing upon voter resentment over rising tax bills. In recent weeks, the candidate has built his campaign around the property tax issue, pledging to put a two-year freeze on homeowners' property taxes and to prevent homeowners over age 70 from seeing another tax increase.
"He can count to 20,000," the number of residents who signed petitions to place the tax initiative on the ballot, said County Attorney Stephen Beard.
At a morning news conference discussing his countersuit, Callahan stressed that while he does not personally support the tax measure, he thinks the county's action "denies the people their fundamental right to petition their government."
Critics contend that the tax measure, which would prohibit the county from collecting more in property tax revenue next year than it had in 1989 and would limit increases in subsequent years, would wreak havoc with essential services such as education and public safety by lopping more than $40 million from the county's budget. Supporters say it is necessary to limit government spending.
According to Callahan, his attorney will argue that the county's suit is premature because the tax measure could get voted down and that the suit violates state law by asking the court to rule on a hypothetical situation. Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer, who will argue the county's side Monday, said the state Court of Appeals has repeatedly upheld the right of county officials to challenge a ballot initiative's legality before it reaches the voters.
Plymyer said he will ask Judge Bruce C. Williams not to allow Callahan to participate in the case. "The last thing I want to see is for the case to turn into a political sideshow," he said.
"The reason I am doing this now," Callahan said, "is because, as a candidate, I have people who listen to me. I have the luxury of pushing something I believe in."