A bill, which becomes part of the county code, can be petitioned to referendum, while a resolution, or an action of a county administrator, cannot. That's the rub, said Gray, who argues that since the 1994 provision was enacted, the county has found ways around the requirement — by having the council act through resolutions or by having legislative actions carried out by administrative agencies.
Some actions cited in the case affect the whole county; others apply only to individual pieces of property.
For instance, the case cites council resolutions approving changes to the Master Plan for Water and Sewerage that expanded the scope of public utilities, as well as changes to building and road design standards. Also cited is a resolution to close portions of five roads in the western part of the county to make way for the Burntwoods Road interchange on Route 32. The plaintiffs cite the decision by the County Council acting as the Zoning Board to change the zoning on about seven acres at Gorman Road to allow housing for seniors, and a resolution to sell 26 acres of county land in Ellicott City that officials agreed were no longer needed for public purposes.
Gray acknowledges that many of the actions cited are hardly controversial, and would not likely be challenged by referendum in any case. She said the point is to change government practice.
If the plaintiffs were to prevail, "it would say you cannot systematically keep violating people's rights to referendum," Gray said. "It is the pattern and the practice of how the county does business."
The practical effect, she said, would not be very dramatic: "All the county would have to do is have the county re-pass everything as a bill. … It would clean up the process."
The county insists the plaintiffs treat the potential effect too lightly, arguing that the plaintiffs have not taken seriously the potential "real world consequences" of the case and the rights of property owners who could be affected. The Court of Special Appeals cited a portion of the county argument in its opinion issued in April: The residents cannot ask the court to "dismantle the property interests held by the stakeholders and beneficiaries of specific land-use decisions, only to assert that an independent legislative body may attempt to 'remedy' or re-assemble these property rights later on. This notion flies in the face of equity, fairness and due process."