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City to begin information push on rental registration proposal

November 06, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday instructed city staff members to conduct a public information campaign on a planned rental registration program, partially in response to an attempt by landlords to take the issue to referendum.

In addition, the council asked the city attorney to examine the legality of actions taken at city polling places Tuesday by the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County.

The association collected about 1,000 signatures at voting precincts Tuesday in its petition drive for a referendum, Association President Allan Johnson said.

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The Washington County Board of Elections ruled Tuesday afternoon that association members could collect signatures within 100 feet of the polling places provided they did not make comments on the current election. However, the state Board of Elections said they couldn't be that close to voters, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel said she previously had told the association it could have members inside the buildings. But she made them leave after the state board weighed in, she said.

Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said the petition drive turned voting into a "circus." He and other council members questioned the precedent being set by the association.

Johnson said the association did nothing wrong.

The public information campaign will involve meeting with landlords, tenants, neighborhood groups, crime watch groups and others to explain the need for the program, Hagerstown Chief Inspector John Lestitian said.

Lestitian said he proposed the public information campaign before hearing about the petition drive, but questionable comments made by landlord association members, such as a letter stating the city was treating citizens who rent property as "second class citizens," increased the need for the campaign.

Johnson denied the association has spread any misinformation.

The City Council on Oct. 22 unanimously approved the ordinance, which council said is intended to improve the quality of rental housing.

Under the city charter, if 20 percent of city registered voters sign petitions to take an ordinance to referendum within 30 days of the council's approval of the ordinance, the city can't implement the questioned ordinance until after the issue is voted on, Johnson said.

The next regularly scheduled city election is in March 2005.

All five council members Tuesday said they would opt to call a special election, which would cost about $26,500, if the issue goes to referendum.

The council directed Lestitian to proceed, at least for now, with plans to implement the program next April.

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