The leader of a group seeking to block a term-limits proposal from Montgomery County’s November ballot charged Wednesday that the county board of elections improperly denied his request to waive $600 in copying costs for petition signature pages.
Former Rockville City Council member Tom Moore called the agency’s decision “legally unsupportable” and asked the Maryland attorney general’s office to intervene.
Election officials announced Tuesday that Republican activist Robin Ficker had presented more than the required 10,000 valid signatures for the ballot question, which would ask Montgomery voters whether the county executive and members of the County Council should be limited to three consecutive terms.
Moore had asked the elections board for an electronic copy of the signatures in order to prepare for a possible court challenge. Once signatures are certified by the elections board, the law allows a 10-day window for review in circuit court. Moore said the intent would be to take sample of the signatures to check their validity.
Government agencies often waive costs to research and produce information requests if they are deemed to be in the public interest. But in a letter Tuesday to Moore, election director Margaret Jurgensen said the $600 fee was “well within the means of any possible litigant who seeks to file a Petition for Judicial Review.”
Jurgensen said it will cost $600 for K-Tap, an outside document imaging firm, to scan up to 4,000 two-sided 8 1/2 -by-14 petition sheets, and convert them to a PDF that can be burned to a CD. She also said a fee waiver might trigger “a wide-range of other similar potential requests from any number of organizations.”
Late Wednesday, however, the board appeared to back away from its stance. Board attorney Kevin Karpinski said in an e-mail to Moore that since the agency would need to provide the court with a copy of the petitions in the event of a lawsuit, he was willing to burn a disc “to provide it to you and anyone else who decides to participate in the proceedings.”
Moore said he would still seek review of the fee issue from Public Information Act Compliance Board, operated by the attorney general’s office.
He said he currently lacked the resources to pay $600 for the copies, although he plans to soon create a formal committee to raise money for the anti-term limits campaign. Moore also cited a provision of state law that says the first two hours of search and production time be free of charge. The document imaging should fall within that period, he said.
Ficker’s term-limits proposal was also the subject of a public hearing Wednesday before the county board that recommends changes in the Montgomery charter to the County Council . The 11-member Charter Review Commission is scheduled to vote on term limits in September. But since the measure is already likely to be on the November ballot, its decision won’t have much consequence.
County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda) speaking for the council, told the commission that term limits were appealing but ultimately of little value.
“It combines the surface appeal of ‘good government’ with the increasing dissatisfaction with government,” said Berliner, one of five council members who would be barred from running for reelection in 2018 if the measure was approved by voters.
Berliner said there was “no credible evidence” that the quality of government has improved in states or localities that have adopted term limits.
Hessie Harris, a retired Silver Spring attorney, said term limits would focus politicians’ attention where it belongs,
“Public service ceases to be such when the servants’ primary focus is not on service to the citizens but [on whether] he or she is doing what’s deemed necessary to remain in office,” she said.