2nd Review Changes Right-Of-Way Petition Count

2nd Review Changes Right-Of-Way Petition Count
A rendering of the proposed Margaritaville project is pictured as proposed between 13th and 14th streets oceanblock. Rendering by Becker Morgan Group

OCEAN CITY – The town’s elections board this week announced they had revised the verified signature count on a petition for referendum on an ordinance that would allow the resort to convey an abandoned portion of right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue, although the change did little to alter the outcome.

Last year, in advance of the town’s municipal election in November, local resident and former councilperson Margaret Pillas launched an effort to petition for referendum an ordinance passed by the Mayor and Council to abandon and convey a narrow strip of right-of-way 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 the Baltimore Avenue corridor from North Division Street to 15th Street, the town will ultimately convey the narrow strip of right-of-way to all of the property owners. It just so happened the developers of the proposed Margaritaville project were the first applicants.

Pillas’ petition drive was verified successfully by the town’s Board of Supervisors of Elections, apparently setting in motion a special election, or perhaps moving the referendum question to the next scheduled municipal election in November 2024. However, before a decision was made on that, the council voted last month to simply rescind the ordinance passes earlier that would have conveyed the parcel along Baltimore Avenue between 13th Street and 14th Street to the Margaritaville developers.

Instead, the council opted to take a broader-brush approach and begin the process of conveying all of the narrow sections of right-of-way along the corridor through the same process instead of the previously planned piecemeal process that resulted in the petition. Despite the elections board verifying the number of qualified signatures of registered voters, Pillas continued to question the process for counting the votes.

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 Supervisors of Elections 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.

However, Pillas contended the minimum standard for a successful referendum petition was 40% of the registered voters and not 40% of those who voted in the last municipal election. With 825 signatures on the 199 pages of the petition, initially 639 were verified, which was more than enough to surpass the minimum number of 612 needed.

However, under pressure to clarify what the minimum standard is, the Board of Supervisors of Elections took a second review of the submitted petition and determined the number of valid signatures was actually higher. A letter from Board of Supervisors of Elections Chair Mary Adeline Bradford, read into the record on Monday by City Clerk Diana Chavis, confirmed the number of verified signatures on the petition was considerably higher that what was first reported.

“This letter confirms the Board of Supervisors of Elections reviewed the petition results a second time after a clerical error was identified,” the letter reads. “The conclusion does not change the petition’s successful result as reported at the January 3 Mayor and Council regular meeting. It is, however, important to the board that the record be corrected. Upon closure of this second review, it was determined there were 767 qualified signatures as opposed to the 639 as originally reported. Of the 825 signatures, 58 were disqualified.

Local resident and former longtime councilman Vince Gisriel on Monday took umbrage, not necessarily for the signature counting glitch, but the process by which the council simply rescinded the ordinance approving the first application for the right-of-way conveyance that set in motion the referendum drive.

“What concerns me is you just rescinded the ordinance and never gave a chance for the registered voters of the resort to weigh in,” he said. “I’ve been around here a long time and I’ve won some of these and lost some.”

Gisriel, no stranger to petitions for referendums over the years, said once the petition was verified, the town should have been beholden to the registered voters to let them weigh in on the issue.

“A petition to referendum is a legally-binding document,” he said. “I’d like to know on what legal ground you can take a successful petition, rescind the ordinance and then just bring in back again in a different form.”

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.