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Landlords, city file separate legal actions

December 24, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A failed referendum attempt by the Landlords and Property Owners Association of Washington County has led both the association and the City of Hagerstown to file separate legal actions in Washington County Circuit Court.

The city has asked the court in a complaint for declaratory judgment to prevent petitioners from being within 100 feet of voters at polling places, as the association was during the Nov. 5 general election.

The association, represented by attorney Ed Kuczynski, has filed a petition for judicial review, which asks the court to determine whether the number of signatures counted was correct.

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The association's attempt to take to referendum the Hagerstown rental registration ordinance fell 39 signatures short of the number needed, Washington County Board of Elections Supervisor Dorothy Kaetzel has said.

The association needed signatures of 20 percent of the city's qualified voters, or 3,429 valid signatures, Kaetzel said.

Election board staff found 935 signatures of the 4,325 on the petition to be invalid, she said.

The association's hope is that a judge will conclude the petition contained enough valid signatures to place the matter on the ballot, Association President Allan Johnson said Monday.

City Attorney William Nain on Monday said not only will the city fight any attempt to increase the number of valid signatures but it will ask the court to deem invalid any signatures collected at polling places on Election Day.

Johnson said the association collected about 1,000 signatures on Election Day.

In a separate, related action Nairn on Monday filed papers on behalf of the city asking the court to make a judgment supporting its interpretation of state election law. At issue is the interpretation by Election Board lawyer Roger Schlossberg.

Nairn argues that the petitioners should have been kept at least 100 feet away from the polls just as candidates and their supporters are.

Schlossberg disagrees, saying it would have been a potentially unconstitutional restriction of political speech. Schlossberg detailed his interpretation in a letter to the city earlier this month.

The city complaint asks that the court rule that the Election Board must not allow petitioners within 100 feet in future elections.

Schlossberg said Monday he does not object to either legal action. His letter invited the city to take the matter to court for its review and examination.

The landlords' group has denied any wrongdoing on Election Day, saying it was acting with Kaetzel's approval.

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

Some of the petitioners were inside buildings where voters were casting ballots, Kaetzel said. When she received complaints, she said, she called the state Election Board and was told the group should not be within 100 feet of the polling places.

Later that day, she said, the county Election Board decided that the group could be within 100 feet of the polling places, but not inside.

Unless the court decides there are enough valid signatures for the matter to go to referendum, the city can proceed with plans to implement this spring the rental program that will charge landlords $45 per year per rental unit to finance regular inspections. City rental properties currently are inspected only in response to complaints.

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.

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