OCEAN CITY – A local resident came before resort leaders last week seeking a review in the way petitions are certified.
During last week’s public comment period of the Mayor and Council meeting, Ocean City resident and former councilman Vince Gisriel came forward with his concerns about the town’s petition process.
As one of two residents to launch a petition for referendum last year, Gisriel said he was seeking certification changes from the Board of Supervisors of Elections.
“I think it’s important we revisit the way petitions are being looked at by the local board and go the extra mile to certify,” he said. “We shouldn’t have people rejected who are legitimately on the rolls and whole actually come out and vote here in the town.”
In late 2021, a divided council approved an ordinance that would gradually scale up the percentage of room tax revenue dedicated to destination marketing, advertising, special events and the like over a period of years. For his part, Gisriel challenged the ordinance on the grounds the increases dedicated to marketing and advertising would grow those budgets at a rate faster than the general fund growth.
To that end, Gisriel launched a petition for referendum last year to bring the issue to the town’s voters. The city charter requires signatures representing 40% of those who voted in the last municipal election to put the referendum question on the ballot.
In ratifying petition signatures last April, the town’s Board of Supervisors of Elections reported Gisriel collected 807 signatures, well beyond the 612 that were required. Thirteen were deemed invalid.
He told the Mayor and Council last week he did not think much of those 13 signatures until last December, when the local elections board reported the results of another petition for referendum led by local resident Margaret Pillas.
“When Margaret got her results, and lost about 190 [signatures], it really got my attention …,” he said. “She was following the same game plan I was, going door to door. She even did another internal audit matching signature lists against the voter rolls.”
Gisriel told council members his review of the data suggested 136 of those names were found on the voter rolls for the previous election, and that 54 of them voted in the previous election.
“When they reviewed it a second time, there were 58 signatures lost,” he said.
A similar review of his own petition results showed Gisriel had lost 12 signatures.
“Out of those 12 names, eight of those 12 names appeared on the town rolls as of the Election Day,” he said. “Two of those eight voted that day. One of the eight voted, but I learned later they didn’t register until sometime in the summer, so it was a valid dismissal.”
Gisriel pointed out a resolution passed in 2021 recognized the county’s election board maintains the voter registry list. However, it does not certify the petitions.
“I think you really have to begin to look and address how the election board is monitoring these petitions,” he said. “For example, one of the names I lost appeared two lines below on the petition from what appears to be their spouse. The point I’m making is there are other ways to certify a name, like by looking at the address.”
He added that a review of the voter rolls showed roughly 247 move-away residents and 14 deceased individuals appeared on the voter rolls as of the last election.
“I bring this up because the right to vote is a sacred right we all share and enjoy, but the right to sign a petition is equally as sacred,” he said. “When a group of citizens come together because they feel aggrieved about an ordinance or situation and they collectively submit a petition to referendum, they are exercising their First Amendment rights under the Constitution to petition their government for redress of grievances.”
He continued, “What I find interesting is given the number of votes you gentlemen and Ms. [Carol] Proctor have gathered over the last two election cycles, I dare say that some of the very people that were rejected by the board of elections here in town voted for you gentlemen.”
Gisriel reiterated he thought it was important for officials to revisit the way local boards look at petitions.
City Solicitor Heather Stansbury noted the board was independent of the Mayor and Council, and by extension the city manager, city solicitor and city clerk.
“I have spoken with them and they take their role incredibly seriously and they strive to always do the best thing,” she said. “Certainly, as times have changed, and with the charter amendment Mr. Gisriel refers to, I think it acknowledges that the board of elections that they need to consider some updated practices. I am aware they are meeting soon to do that and adopt certain policies and procedures, which may address some of Mr. Gisriel’s concerns, perhaps not all of them.”
She said the board was aware of the concerns relating to the last two referendum petitions and intended to address them.
“I would also note that when the discrepancies that Mr. Gisreal brought to you tonight came to the board’s attention, it very much wanted to correct the record,” she said, “and those records have been corrected.”