Term-limit proposal struck down

October 15, 1994|By Tanya Jones and JoAnna Daemmrich | Tanya Jones and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge struck down yesterday a controversial measure to impose term limits on city officials, ruling that the proposed referendum question was too vague and violates the Maryland and U.S. constitutions.

The decision surprised supporters and opponents of the campaign -- billed as a grass-roots effort to "phase out career politicians" -- because many states and localities already have term limits.

"That makes Baltimore an odd ball in the state of Maryland," said John Armor, a lawyer for Marylanders for Term Limits, a group created and heavily financed by out-of-town Republicans and a national advocacy organization.

Washington-based U.S. Term Limits helped train scores of paid petition-gatherers in Baltimore and gave $18,400 to the campaign run by C. Nelson Warfield, a Montgomery County lawyer, and Penn Parking owner Lisa Renshaw, who lives in Anne Arundel County.

The other major donor was former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Ronald S. Lauder of Estee Lauder cosmetics, a client of Mr. Warfield's who lost in the 1989 Republican mayoral primary in New York City.

Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli has begun a criminal investigation into the possible forgery of petitions after city elections officials discovered widespread irregularities. His action comes at a time when the national group is under scrutiny in four other states for allegedly using fraudulently obtained signatures to get similar measures on the ballot.

In his ruling on a suit by a Northeast Baltimore couple, Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan rejected the proposed City Charter amendment, which would have restricted the mayor, comptroller and the 19-member City Council to two four-year terms. He found that the initiative did not clearly distinguish between an overall limit and consecutive terms.

also ruled that the measure would interfere with voters' rights.

Mr. Warfield, who replaced Ms. Renshaw as chairman of Marylanders for Term Limits this week, said his group does not have the funds to appeal. In any case, he said, any reversal by a higher court would come too late to permit changing the November ballot.

"Justice sped up is justice screwed up," he said. "If this hadn't been on such a fast track, if there had been more time to make a case on the constitutional issues, the outcome would have been different."

The ruling bars the term-limits question from November's election, but national and local advocates vowed that it would not end their campaign in Maryland. And several council members are planning their own term-limits drive in time for next year's election.

Critics of the petition drive welcomed the judge's ruling. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who called the campaign the antithesis of grass-roots activism, said, "I am pleased that these Republican outsiders won't be rewarded for their unscrupulous practices in misleading people about the purpose and intent of this question."

Local Republican leaders took pains yesterday to point out that they were not involved in the petition drive to put the term-limits question on the November ballot.

David Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Party, said he was approached by Mr. Warfield and Ms. Renshaw but declined to participate because he does not support term limits.

Many city officials and community leaders were caught off-guard by the campaign for term limits. In August, Marylanders for Term Limits announced it had 29,748 signatures, three times the number needed to place the initiative on the ballot.

"It was very curious. It came out of the blue," said Council Vice President Vera P. Hall.

The $33,050 campaign, bankrolled and organized by the national group and a small circle of Republican activists, was part of a statewide effort.

The state has term limits for governor, and other jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel and Howard counties, Annapolis and Aberdeen, also have limits.

Elections officials discovered widespread irregularities when they compared petition signatures with those on voter registration cards. Thousands of petitions had to be thrown out because they were signed by out-of-town residents. Others appeared to contain forged signatures in the same handwriting, city officials said.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of congressional term limits in November, but it passed on hearing arguments on state and local term limits earlier this year.

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