- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fenty administration officials say early next week they will challenge an elections board ruling that could allow the mayor’s plan to take over the District’s public school system to go before city voters.

Carrie Brooks, a spokeswoman for D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, yesterday said officials “can’t speak ahead of time about the details of the challenge” but that one likely would be filed by Tuesday or Wednesday.

The appeal — expected to be filed in D.C. Superior Court — will likely be heard on an expedited basis. If it is upheld, referendum supporters will have roughly a week to collect about 20,000 signatures to place the takeover plan on the ballot for an August special election, officials said.

“I have no doubt that the people will prevail,” said Mary Spencer, who petitioned the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics for the referendum. “We don’t want anyone to take our right to vote away.”

The board ruled on Tuesday that portions of Mr. Fenty’s plan can be subjected to a referendum, but chances of the takeover being placed on voter ballots depend in part on the time frame of Mr. Fenty’s challenge.

Bill O’Field, an elections board spokesman, said a 10-day period to appeal the board’s decision will begin tomorrow and end June 5.

The board is scheduled to meet June 6 and can issue petitions that day, meaning supporters can then begin gathering signatures, Mr. O’Field said.

The signatures must be presented to the elections board before the end of the bill’s mandatory 30-day congressional review period, which is scheduled to expire June 12.

However, if an appeal is filed later in the 10-day challenge period, the court proceeding could cut into the one-week window in which supporters can gather the required signatures.

“It drags it out,” Mr. O’Field said. “The challenge would have to be resolved before the board could issue petitions.”

Mrs. Spencer’s attorney, Matthew Watson, said he fears that a challenge from the mayor or another opponent might come late and cut into the signature-gathering period.

“We do have some concern, and that’s that the challenge will be filed on the last day” of the appeals period, Mr. Watson said.

Supporters must collect the signatures of at least 5 percent of registered voters in the city. The signatures must be distributed to reflect at least 5 percent of the registered voters in at least five of the eight wards.

The mayor’s takeover of the 55,000-student system was approved by the Senate this week and now awaits President Bush’s signature. But if the measure makes it to the ballot, the results will trump the federal action.

Mrs. Spencer, vice president of the D.C. office of the Association of Community Organizations for Change Now (ACORN), said she has about 200 supporters willing to help collect signatures.

Mr. Watson said collecting signatures will be difficult but not impossible, despite recent signature-gathering efforts that have been plagued with problems.

In 2002, former Mayor Anthony A. Williams was taken off the Democratic primary ballot after it was discovered that his nominating petitions were riddled with what the elections board called “obvious forgeries.”

In 2004, offshore investors mounted a frenzied 10-day campaign to collect enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot to authorize slot machine-style gambling in the District. The effort crumbled after the elections board determined that less than a third of the 56,000 signatures collected were legal.

Mr. Watson attributed those problems to the use of paid petition circulators.

He said supporters of a medical marijuana initiative in 2002 legally collected in about five days the required number of signatures to put that measure on the ballot.

Cherita Whiting, community activist and chairman of the Ward 4 Education Council who has opposed Mr. Fenty’s plan, said getting the signatures will not be a problem.

“People always understood where we were coming from and wanted it to be put to the people to decide,” she said.

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