Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Opponents to anti-bias law turn in signatures

Knapp decries spread of 'misinformation'

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Opponents of allowing the county's an anti-discrimination law to include transgendered people have turned more than 28,000 signatures into the Board of Elections to bring the legislation up to a vote by county residents.

The group, Citizens for Responsible Government, formed after the County Council passed the legislation last year, needed 5 percent, or 25,001 valid signatures for the referendum in the November balloting.

Meanwhile, Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said Tuesday he is troubled by the misinformation he said is being spread by opponents of the law.

‘‘The thing that is sad to me is the level of vitriol,” Knapp said. ‘‘They are providing misinformation and scaring people,” he said, and the county will have to work to counter the misinformation.

Assuming all of CRG's signatures are valid, just what will the ballot question say?

‘‘We want to make sure it's simple for all county residents to understand the implications of this bill so they will see it as a clear 'yes' or 'no.' Yes, we want the bill as it is, or no, we do not,” said Michelle Turner, spokeswoman for the organization.

The law broadens the county's existing laws to prohibit discrimination against transgendered people in housing, employment, cable television service and taxi service.

The County Council and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) approved the law after removing a contentious amendment that would have also regulated areas like bathrooms and locker rooms. Without the amendment, operators of those facilities would retain authority on who uses them.

But opponents, such as CRG - which initially argued against the bathroom provision - still argue that the law is too vague. And because of that argument and the group's petition process, the law has not gone into effect yet, said Michael Faden, a council attorney.

‘‘This is a referendum on a law,” Faden said. ‘‘If they get their signatures, then it won't take effect until the referendum, and depending on the answer, if voters want it, the law takes effect 30 days after the referendum; and if voters don't want it, [the law] doesn't take effect.”

Proponents for the county's law - including Dana Beyer, a transgendered female and staff member for Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg - have called CRG's process a series of scare tactics.

CRG has run into opponents who have challenged the group's mission and petition process. In the past few weeks minor skirmishes have broken out between volunteers collecting signatures for the group and opponents at grocery stores, schools and polling places last week. An attorney for the group is deciding whether to file a civil rights lawsuit because of alleged harassment.

‘‘We have found that this issue straddles every demographic and political line,” said Ruth Jacobs, an infectious disease physician in Rockville who leads the group. ‘‘The ease with which the signatures have been obtained and the indignation of the voters demonstrate how isolated the council is from its constituents.”