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Elections board won't soon act on request

November 13, 2002|By SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - The Washington County Board of Elections said Tuesday it will be at least a month before it acts on a written request by the City of Hagerstown to find that a landlords group violated state elections law when it collected petition signatures at voting precincts on Election Day.

The Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County has denied any wrongdoing, saying it was acting with the approval of Election Supervisor Dorothy Kaetzel when it collected signatures for a referendum on a city rental registration ordinance, which is intended to improve the quality of city rental housing.

Kaetzel said Tuesday she told an association representative that the petition gatherers could be in polling places provided they were not in the polling rooms or interfering with voters.

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The Elections Board received a copy of the city's written complaint Tuesday, just minutes before its monthly meeting.

Board members concluded they did not want to respond to the city's letter until discussing the matter first with its legal counsel, Roger Schlossberg, who was not present at Tuesday's meeting.

"I definitely think we need our attorney to be here for any discussion," Election Board Member Jim Mobley said. "We need a little bit more time."

The board decided to discuss the request with Schlossberg in executive session at its Dec. 10 meeting.

The written complaint says that at 8:45 a.m. Election Day, City Attorney John Urner lodged with Schlossberg the city's complaint that the petition seekers were violating state laws.

Schlossberg told Urner "that the petition seekers had not asked permission from the board in advance, but rather had just shown up and started their activity," the city letter said.

While the appointed board members did not give permission, Kaetzel said she did so. Schlossberg said Tuesday he was unaware of what Kaetzel said.

Initially on Election Day, some of the association members were inside buildings where voters were casting ballots, she said.

When she received about 50 phone calls, including some complaints, 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, Kaetzel said.

The Board of Elections then decided, at an Election Day meeting, that the association members could be within 100 feet of the polling places but not inside, she said.

Schlossberg refused to detail the advice he gave the board but said "the board acted carefully, as is its custom." He is confident the board's decision will be upheld if it is challenged, he said.

The city complaint also asks the county to prohibit petition gathering within 100 feet of polling places in future elections.

The association has collected about 2,000 of the 4,000 signatures of registered voters it needs to get by Nov. 22 to take the ordinance creating the program to a referendum, Association President Allan Johnson said. If the association succeeds, the city cannot implement the questioned ordinance until after the issue is voted on, Johnson said.

The association collected about 1,000 signatures at voting precincts on Election Day, which sparked complaints by some voters and Hagerstown City Council members.

The association issued an apology Friday to any voters offended by the petition drive. Johnson said anyone who wants to have their petition signature removed because they felt misguided can do so by calling the association office at 301-745-3159, Johnson said.

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