Petition Signature Verification Process Challenged

OCEAN CITY – The organizer of a successful petition drive aimed at reversing an ordinance conveying an abandoned portion of right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue continues to challenge the verified signature count.

Last year, local resident and former councilperson Margaret Pillas launched an effort to petition to referendum an ordinance passed by the Mayor and Council to abandon and convey a narrow strip along Baltimore Avenue between 13th and 14th streets to accommodate the proposed Margaritaville project’s planned overlay district designation. As part of the redevelopment of Baltimore Avenue from North Division Street to 15th Street, the town will convey the entirety of the long-abandoned narrow strip of right-of-way to the adjacent property owners. Margaritaville was the first applicant.

Pillas’ petition drive was verified by the Board of Elections Supervisors with the requisite number of signatures to successfully petition the approved ordinance to referendum. The successful petition left the Mayor and Council with a decision to hold a special election for that single issue, or put the referendum question off until the next municipal election in 2024.

Last week, the council voted to simply rescind the ordinance that would have allowed for the conveyance of the right-of-way between 13th and 14th streets, opting instead to begin a blanket approach of conveying the right-of-way to all of the property owners along the corridor in the project area. The move ended the question of a special election or other accommodations for the successful petition drive.

However, Pillas continues to question the section of the code related to the number of signatures needed to successfully petition for referendum. Resort officials’ position has been – and it appears the charter reads the same way – that the signatures of 40% of those who voted in the last election in November 2020 were needed for the verification of a successful petition.

The town charter reads: “If an approved petition is filed within the prescribed time period, with the City Clerk containing the signatures of not less than forty per centum (40%) of the number of voters at the most recent general election and requesting that the ordinance, or any part thereof, be submitted to a vote of the registered voters of the town for their approval or disapproval, the Council shall have the ordinance, or the part thereof requested for referendum submitted to a vote of the registered voters of the town at the next regular town election or, in the Council’s discretion, at a special election occurring before the next regular election.”

In December, the Board of Elections Supervisors confirmed the petition included 199 pages containing 825 signatures. With 1,528 voters in the 2020 election, the 40% minimum standard would have been 612. Instead, the board verified 639 signatures, which was more than enough to move the petition for referendum forward.

The point is somewhat moot, at least for now, because the council rescinded the ordinance that was the subject of the petition drive. However, Pillas said this week her research of the charter and the specifics of the language it includes suggests 40% of the town’s entire electorate should be the standard, regardless of whether or not they voted in 2020. She concludes the entire 825 signatures included on the submitted petition should have been included.

“I’m ready to move forward with this,” she said. “I’m concerned about nearly 190 signatures pulled off the list. The town’s position is if you didn’t vote in the last election, you can’t sign the petition.”

Pillas contends the charter suggests 40% of the town’s electorate is needed to successfully petition for referendum. For that reason, she believes the 186 signatures that were pulled from the list should have remained on the petition.

“So, what their position is, if I didn’t vote in 2020, I can’t sign the petition, even if I voted in prior elections,” she said. “I am taking it as two different sentences. Somewhere in there, the word ‘registered’ was either added or removed. I could have voted in five prior elections but missed 2020 for a variety of reasons and that would disqualify me from signing the petition.”

With the need for a special election avoided for now, Pillas or others could presumably launch a petition drive to bring to referendum future ordinances related to the Baltimore Avenue right-of-way abandonment and conveyance to the adjacent property owners. With the council rescinding the original ordinance, the process has begun anew to convey the narrow strip to all the eligible property owners. The process includes letters sent to property owners, potential in-person meetings with property owners and ample opportunities for public comment and public hearings.

By way of background, the town in recent years has been in the process of planning a major redevelopment of the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division Street to 15th Street including the undergrounding of unsightly utilities, widening sidewalks and an overall streetscaping. The $40 million Baltimore Avenue redevelopment project is not without its complexities.

For example, deeds platted decades ago show the Baltimore Avenue right-of-way at 75 feet, but the current roadway utilizes just 45 feet from curb to curb, creating a narrow strip of property not needed for the corridor. Over the years, adjacent property owners have steadily encroached on the no man’s land of sorts with signs, parking, driveways and landscaping, for example.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.