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Petition causes stir at polls

November 06, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Members of the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County sparked controversy Tuesday when they turned up at at least 10 polling places in Hagerstown to gather signatures for a petition.

Initially, some of the association members were inside the buildings where voters were casting ballots. They were trying to obtain signatures for a petition to take to referendum the Hagerstown rental registration ordinance approved Oct. 22 by the Hagerstown City Council.

Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel said she received about 50 phone calls Tuesday from precinct workers and voters about the petition drive by the 200-member Landlords and Property Owners Association.

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Some callers said they resented being bothered at their polling places, she said.

"I was personally affronted by it," Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said during Tuesday's council meeting.

In response to the petition drive, at least 10 supporters of the ordinance handed out fliers near polling places, trying to set the record straight on the ordinance, Councilwoman Penny May Nigh said.

Kaetzel said she previously told association officials they could be in the polling place buildings, provided they were not in the polling rooms or interfering with voters.

When people complained, she called the state Board of Elections and was told the association members should not be collecting petitions within 100 feet of the polling places, she said.

The Washington County Board of Elections, however, decided the association members could be within 100 feet of the polling places but could not be inside the buildings, she said.

When so notified, the association members left the buildings, she said.

"They have a right to freedom of speech as long as they are not electioneering for this election," Kaetzel said.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said the city will contact state officials to see if there should be any consequences for the landlord association's actions Tuesday.

Association President Allan Johnson said the group collected about 1,000 signatures Tuesday, bringing the total number to about 2,000.

"Everything we did was on the up and up. We were not trying to cause problems," Johnson said.

If they are to halt implementation of the ordinance, landlords must gather 4,000 signatures representing 20 percent of registered voters within 30 days after the council's Oct. 22 approval of the ordinance.

Under the rental registration ordinance, rental properties will be inspected every three years or when there is a change in occupancy. Landlords will pay $45 a year per rental unit to finance rental property inspections.

The Hagerstown City Council and city staff say the ordinance is needed to improve the quality of rental housing in the city. Rental housing is currently inspected only in response to complaints.

The association argues the ordinance unfairly punishes all landlords for the actions of a few bad ones. It says existing laws can address any problems with the quality of rental housing.

Council members have said they expect landlords to pass the rental fee costs on to their tenants.

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