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Landlords' group says petition can force vote

November 20, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - The president of the group trying to take the City of Hagerstown's rental registration ordinance to referendum said the group has collected more than enough signatures to place the matter on the ballot.

The Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County wants the public to vote on the ordinance, which would charge landlords $45 per year per rental unit to finance regular rental property inspections. City rental properties currently are inspected only in response to complaints.

The Hagerstown City Council and city staff say the program is needed to improve the quality of housing in the city.

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The Landlords and Property Owners Association says the ordinance unfairly blames all rental property owners for the actions of a few bad ones. Landlords also cite worries that the program will be onerous if the pettiest of violations are enforced.

The association has until Thursday to submit to the city a petition with the signatures of 3,400 registered voters, Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel said.

The number of signatures needed is 20 percent of the city's registered voters.

The association has collected between 3,800 and 4,000 signatures, Association President Allan Johnson said.

"It looks like we are going to make it," Johnson said.

Johnson said the association will get an exact signature count today and submit the petition Thursday.

If the Washington County Board of Elections confirms that the petition has enough valid signatures, the city cannot implement the ordinance until after the issue is voted on, either in a special election or in the next regularly scheduled city election in March 2005.

All five City Council members, who unanimously voted to adopt the ordinance on Oct. 22, have said they would opt to call a special election if the issue goes to referendum.

City officials have said a special election would cost about $26,500.

If the city receives the petition Thursday, it will turn it over to the Washington County Board of Elections Friday, Hagerstown City Clerk Donna K. Spickler said.

The election board has until Dec. 12 to verify that signatures are those of registered voters, Kaetzel said.

The election board is scheduled to meet Dec. 10 with its attorney about the City of Hagerstown's written request that it find that the association violated state elections law when it collected about 1,000 signatures within 100 feet of polling places on Election Day, which was Nov. 5.

The association has denied any wrongdoing, saying it had Kaetzel's approval.

The election board received a copy of the city's written complaint Nov. 12, minutes before its monthly meeting.

Election board members decided not to respond to the city's letter until they discussed the matter with the board's legal counsel, Roger Schlossberg, who was not present at the Nov. 12 meeting.

Under the program, properties will be inspected after a rental license application is submitted. Rental properties also will be inspected every three years or when there is a change in occupancy, whichever occurs first.

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