Activists get last chance for referendum petitions

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Activists hoping to bring Mayor Adrian M. Fenty“s school takeover plan before voters yesterday were granted a last-minute hearing, which could decide the fate of their challenge.

A D.C. Superior Court judge had not ruled on the case by yesterday evening after hearing about 90 minutes of arguments on the merits of putting Mr. Fenty“s plan to a referendum.

At issue was whether the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics should be forced to grant petitions to referendum supporters so they can attempt to gather enough signatures to place the takeover proposal on city ballots.

In court documents filed Tuesday, the board reversed its opinion that Mr. Fenty“s plan was a proper referendum issue.

Officials with the D.C. Attorney General”s Office then withdrew a court challenge against the board“s initial ruling, and a hearing scheduled for yesterday morning was canceled.

But Matthew Watson, an attorney for the D.C. residents seeking the referendum, asked the court to order the board to issue petitions for signatures, saying the opinion was not reversed in a public meeting. Mr. Watson argued that D.C. law requires such decisions to be made before the public.

Mr. Watson also argued that the board does not have the authority to reconsider its opinion.

“There”s no question that the public interest is served by the petitions going forth as soon as possible,” Mr. Watson said. “We just don”t have something that says, ‘We can secretly change our view and we”re not going to tell you until it”s too late.” ”

During a 3 p.m. hearing before Judge Lynn Leibovitz, attorneys for the board argued that elections officials can reverse a ruling if they do so within a reasonable amount of time.

City attorneys reiterated their view that Mr. Fenty“s plan, which was passed by the D.C. Council in April but required congressional approval, is not fit for a referendum because part of the plan was “legislatively accomplished” last week.

On Friday, President Bush signed a congressional bill repealing portions of the District”s Home Rule Charter so Mr. Fenty“s takeover plan can be put into effect. Robert Utiger with the attorney general”s office said that the presidential signing renders a referendum essentially useless.

“Congress has now passed a law that makes anything that goes forward with a referendum advisory,” Mr. Utiger said. It”s “not even advisory.”

Mr. Watson argued that the referendum would have no effect on the congressional bill. If the referendum is approved by voters, he said, it would essentially veto the council legislation that gives Mr. Fenty control of the 55,000-student school system and would leave authority to the city school board.

Mr. Utiger asked Judge Leibovitz to rule not just on the petition issue but also on whether any challenged portion of Mr. Fenty“s plan can be brought to a referendum.

The judge is expected to rule today. If supporters of the referendum are granted petitions, they will have only until Monday to collect roughly 20,000 signatures.

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