- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Townspeople and stakeholders are awaiting a final decision on whether a referendum will take place on an annexation to build a Walmart Supercenter in La Plata, though some believe the county’s elections board already verified enough signatures for a referendum.
La Plata Town Manager Daniel Mears has been reviewing the referendum petition and the Charles County Board of Elections report since last week, following the board’s 20-day review of the petition that they completed Feb. 11.
In response to a request from the Maryland Independent for the report and the board’s count of signatures Friday, Mears said he would provide a written report on the review of the petition.
In response to a request for the report and the board’s count of signatures Tuesday, Mears said that he would consider the request “a request under the Maryland Public Information Act, and respond accordingly.”
Mears did not respond to a request left in a voicemail message to name the specific exception from the state’s public records law under which he is withholding the information.
David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said, “The bottom line is that under the Maryland Public Information Act, no matter who you request it from, they have 30 days to respond to the request. After that, they are in violation of the PIA.”
Paulson said that while the Attorney General’s Office could not determine whether the board of elections report falls under the list of exceptions in the PIA without looking at the report, the names of people who have signed the petition are not considered confidential.
Mears wrote in a press release Tuesday that as part of his review, he is confirming the number of registered voters in the town, reviewing the board’s count — including the board’s acceptance and rejection of individual signatures, processing more than 60 requests for individual signatures to be removed from the petition and considering any legal issues associated with the signatures and the petition.
In an email, Mears wrote that he is consulting Town Attorney Frederick Sussman.
Upon completing his review, Mears wrote that he will prepare a written report and make the report available to the Maryland Independent, after he has made the report available to the referendum petitioners and posted the report on the town’s website, www.townoflaplata.org.
Some are upset about the time it is taking to review the referendum petition.
Michael Runfola, a La Plata town resident, said that the Board of Elections told him that it verified 1,332 signatures from the referendum petition.
Runfola also said the only other annexation that went to referendum, the property to become the Heritage Green development, lasted three months from the approval date to the referendum date.
In contrast, the town council approved the supercenter annexation Sept. 27 and five months from that date occurs Monday.
Runfola participated in the petition for referendum but relied upon research of Maryland Independent articles in 1990 to affirm that the town council approved the “Davis” annexation on March 20, 1990, and completed the referendum June 14, 1990.
Runfola said the town received the signatures May 2, 1990, the board of elections and then-town manager Doug Miller verified the signatures in tandem May 3, and it was reported in the Maryland Independent on May 4.
“What is the delay all about? This is asinine,” Runfola said.
“The Town Manager is conducting the petition and signatures review in a methodical and deliberate manner so that the results can be defended if challenged in court,” Mears wrote in the press release.
Traci Scudder of the Law Office of Traci Scudder in Bowie, who represents the referendum petitioners, said, “We have not yet been officially informed of the board of elections’ results. However, we remain confident that the board has verified enough signatures from the town’s registered voters for a referendum. We expect the town to report results any day now.”
Councilwoman Paddy Mudd, who has advocated for the referendum, wrote in an email addressed to Mears, council members, town staff and the Maryland Independent that the board of elections verified 1,332 signatures, enough for a referendum.
Mudd said a figure of 5,273 registered voters comes from the board of elections as of Aug. 18, which the referendum petitioners requested in preparation to do a petition.
Mears said in an email that the total number of registered voters was not likely correct, but he would provide a new number with his report.
There are 5,487 active registered voters in the town of La Plata as of Wednesday, according to the Charles County Board of Elections.
The board of elections calculated 5,314 active registered voters in September after the council voted to approve the annexation.
Under the September number, the petition requires 1,063 signatures, while under the current number the petition requires 1,098 signatures.
Either way, 1,332 signatures exceeds the requirements.
“I am really upset about this; this is public knowledge,” referring to the board’s report and the number of signatures they verified.
“I believe this is a matter of public information and it should be released. And we should get on with the referendum,” Mudd said in a follow-up interview.
Other council members defended Mears’ review of the referendum petition.
“The town manager is the one who is required by law to conduct the referendum and carry the procedures with it. I believe he is carrying that out. The whole process needs to be carried out in accordance with state law, and the legal issues need to be addressed as they come up, and I believe the town manager and town attorney are doing an excellent job in this regard,” Mayor Roy Hale said.
“My feeling is that Dan wants to make sure that it is 100 percent legal, and I am 100 percent behind what Dan and our attorney are doing,” Councilman Wayne Winkler said.
Upon requesting the board of elections for a copy of the report, board Director Tracy Dickerson said that all materials, including the report and referendum petition, had been sent to the town hall.
Further questions on the petition and report were directed to the town.
The annexation would allow a 181,500-square-foot Walmart Supercenter, three commercial areas and a 50,000-square-foot office building on 28 acres just south of Rosewick Road.