The Maryland Court of Appeals paved the way yesterday for a stringent tax limitation measure to appear on Montgomery County's November ballot, a decision that caught county officials by surprise.
The decision by the state's highest court means that a petition collected by a local taxpayers group must be submitted to county elections officials, who will determine if it contains the 10,000 signatures from registered voters needed for a referendum.
Fairness in Taxation collected 13,000 signatures to put a measure limiting property tax increases on the ballot. The group never submitted the petition to elections officials because it reached a compromise with County Council members in which a more modest proposal would be presented to voters. That decision was challenged by four Republican candidates for county office in the lawsuit decided yesterday.
The major difference between the two proposals is that the original proposal would have limited increases in the money collected from property taxes to 75 percent of the rate of inflation while the measure approved by the council provided for the full inflation rate. The original measure also would have limited the portion of the county budget financed by property taxes.
The court's decision complicates an already convoluted series of ballot questions in which Montgomery voters could be voting on as many as four tax limitation measures -- some of which contradict each other and at least one of which may be unconstitutional.
"No one thought the court would do this," said Michael Faden, an attorney for the County Council.
The council, interrupting its summer recess, will meet in an emergency session this morning to deal with the issue.
Faden said that if there are the required number of valid signatures on the petition, the council by law must certify the question for the ballot.
As soon as he heard of the court's order, Montgomery election administrator Douglas L. Jernigan started his workers on the tedious process of checking names. Workers will be called in nights and over the Labor Day weekend to complete the work. The deadline for ballot questions was Aug. 13.
The Court of Appeals, sitting in Annapolis, issued a one-page order overturning county Circuit Court Judge John J. Mitchell's decision this month that Fairness in Taxation did not have to turn in the petition. The court, saying its opinion will follow, remanded the case to Mitchell, ordering him to find for the Republicans who filed suit, council candidates Robin Ficker, George Sauer and John Thomas and GOP county executive hopeful Albert Ceccone.
Ficker could not be reached for comment, and his office referred all questions to his lawyer.
Robert Denny, chairman of the taxpayers group, said his organization would use all available means to prevent two competing measures from appearing on the ballot. His group is contacting people who signed the original petition to ask that they seek removal of their names so that the total number of signatures will fall below 10,000.
Jernigan said he would not remove any signatures unless ordered by a court to do so. He said he hoped to have the certification process completed by early next week.
Council officials said they expected the council today to approve placing the question on the ballot on the condition it is certified by elections officials. Council staff members said there has been no discussion of trying to remove the compromise provision, and County Attorney Clyde H. "Rocky" Sorrell said he thinks it is too late to do so.
Sorrell said other legal questions are left unresolved. An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court ruling this week declared a local property tax limitation measure unconstitutional. That ruling, expected to be appealed, calls into question similar measures headed for Montgomery voters, in particular one that would freeze the county tax rate.