Pubdate: Thu, 12 Feb 1998 Source: Portland (Maine) Press-Herald Author: Joshua L. Weinstein, Staff Writer CITY SUED FOR ALLEGED MISHANDLING OF MEDICINAL MARIJUANA PETITIONS A group that wants to legalize marijuana for limited medicinal purposes is suing the city of Portland and the secretary of state's office, saying the two mishandled petitions to get a question on the November ballot. The state's top elections official said Wednesday that Mainers for Medical Rights is correct to sue, and that Portland bungled the petitions. Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky called the city's behavior ''inexcusable.'' Gwadowsky said he hopes a judge will order him to accept the petitions. If that happens, Mainers could vote on medicinal marijuana this November. City officials acknowledge they handled the petitions badly. In fact, they say they are working with Mainers for Medical Rights - the group that is suing them. The city plans to ''do our best to fix what needs to be fixed so they can get on the ballot in November,'' said Gary Wood, Portland's city attorney. The Problem Stems From Dates. In order to get a citizen referendum on the November ballot, organizations had to submit the signatures of at least 51,131 registered voters to the secretary of state's office by Feb. 1. Mainers for Medical Rights gave the state 48,688 -- 2,433 too few. Without enough signatures, Gwadowsky had no choice but to decline the group's request to put the question on the November ballot. But there's a catch: According to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Kennebec County Superior Court, the organization submitted 3,239 additional signatures to the city of Portland for verification on Jan. 23. Those signatures are key. The state constitution requires municipalities to certify such petitions within five business days. Portland and several other municipalities did not. Consequently, Mainers for Medical Rights was not able to deliver the signatures to Gwadosky's office before the deadline. Robert Ganley, the city manager, said clerks were too busy preparing for Tuesday's election to get to the petitions. He said it is difficult to check signatures in five days, especially near an election. ''This thing wouldn't come up until November, and the election was immediate,'' Ganley said. ''We had 17,000 voters yesterday, which is a huge number for a special election, and almost 2,000 absentee ballots, so there was a lot of preparation work that went into that, and I think the priorities were correct in dealing with the election first.'' Still, he said, ''technically, we're wrong here.'' He said clerks will work through the weekend checking the signatures. Gwadosky, speaking from a meeting in Washington, said there is no excuse for the city's failure. ''We were very disappointed that the city of Portland did not process those petitions in a timely fashion, and can't think of any rationale or excuse that they didn't do it, because they were obviously aware of the constitutional and statutory deadlines,'' he said. ''Had we known earlier, I think we would have pressured them to turn those around.'' He said that because Mainers for Medical Rights got the petitions to the city on time, he would like to check the signatures and, if they are valid, put the question on the ballot. Craig Brown, a Mainers for Medical Rights spokesman, said the group would rather not sue, but has no choice. ''The legal route is really the only way to resolve this,'' he said. ''We played by the rules, and wish that Portland and the other municipalities had also played by the rules.'' In 1996, Portland and six other municipalities improperly disqualified valid signatures from voters wishing to join the Reform Party.