Organizers Confident Initial Sports Complex Petition Deadline Met

Organizers Confident Initial Sports Complex Petition Deadline Met
Commissioner Diana Purnell said it was "embarrassing and disgusting" that members of the group that want the sports complex bond bill as a referendum question came to the Flower Street community during the Memorial Day Parade.

BERLIN– Organizers of a petition effort related to the county’s plan to use bond funds to buy land for a sports complex say they’ve met the first deadline in the process.

The citizen committee working on a petition to referendum regarding Worcester County’s use of more than $11 million in bond funding turned in more than 50% of the required signatures May 31. With that deadline met, the group now has until July 8 to submit the total number of signatures required—10% of the county’s 44,925 voters.

“It’s a moving target,” said Ocean City resident Vince Gisriel, chair of the committee. “As the days go on more people register to vote. Almost daily there are new people added.”

Once the Worcester County Commissioners voted to use bond funds to move forward with purchasing a $7.1 million piece of property for a sports complex, Gisriel and other concerned citizens launched a petition effort. They’re worried about the use of public funds to buy the 95-acre parcel and want voters to have a say on the bond bill through a referendum.

Though the law provides a 40-day window during which signatures can be gathered, Gisriel’s group spent the early days getting approval for the required ballot issue committee and figuring out how the process worked, as at least 20 years have passed since the last county referendum.

“We did the first leg in three weeks,” Gisriel said. “Now we have a longer period to get the balance.”

He explained that the group was required to turn in more than 50% of the required number of signatures by May 31.

“We had more than enough to turn in,” he said.

Though the initial goal was to get 2,500 signatures by the first deadline and 5,000 by July 8, he said the group had increased that goal to 3,000 by May 31 and 6,000 by July 8 to allow a margin of error, as some signatures will be deemed invalid.

Gisriel said that like he has done for Ocean City petitions in the past, he collects most signatures by going door to door.

“That way I know they’re valid voters,” he said. “By doing that you really decrease your invalidation rates.”

With a county referendum requiring such a large amount of signatures, however, Gisriel noted that in this case volunteers were going to places like farmers markets and parades to collect signatures. One business owner even let the group collect signatures in his store.

“We had almost 50 people working on this,” Gisriel said. “It was really a community effort.”

Most citizens they encounter have read about the effort in the newspaper, Gisriel said. The issue has also come up at town meetings in Berlin, where officials have expressed frustration at not being included in the planning process.

“They may not know the details but once they hear the exorbitant cost of the land they’re really responsive,” he said. “The enthusiasm among the electorate is really high.”

While the commissioners’ 4-3 vote to proceed with purchasing the property next to Stephen Decatur High School occurred in April, settlement is expected on or before Sept. 29. John D. Haynes & Associates Inc. has been hired to conduct an environmental evaluation of the site and county staff have stressed that during the 180-day study period currently underway, the county can terminate the contract to purchase the property for any reason.

And while the issue of using bond funds for the sports complex may go to referendum, county officials have confirmed that that the purchase could proceed anyway.

“The bond bill to finance the sports complex is a public local law, so that component of the sports complex process is subject to a potential referendum,” said Kim Moses, the county’s public information officer, said in an email in April. “If bond funds were not available, the project could be paid for by other revenue sources, like fund balance.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.