Judge Dismisses Purple Line Advocates’ Lawsuit Against Town of Chevy Chase

Judge Dismisses Purple Line Advocates’ Lawsuit Against Town of Chevy Chase

Action Committee for Transit alleged that town acted illegally by not providing details of anti-Purple Line lobbying campaign

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Transit advocate Ben Ross

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A Montgomery County judge last week dismissed a lawsuit from a group of Purple Line advocates who claimed the town of Chevy Chase violated the state’s Public Information Act by refusing to divulge details of its lobbying campaign against the light-rail project.

Circuit Court Judge Cheryl McCally dismissed the case on all counts June 30.

The Action Committee for Transit (ACT) and Bethesda resident Ben Ross sued the town in January. ACT said it was denied minutes of the Town Council’s closed sessions in which members discussed the town's $29,000-per-month contract with lobbyists helping it fight the Purple Line at the federal and state levels.

It also claimed the town wrongfully referred to past ACT public information requests as the reason why it couldn't provide the two hours of free research required by Maryland’s Public Information Act. The town said it would need fees ranging from $700 to $1,345 to research the information.

But lawyers for the town said it was under no obligation to provide additional free research after responding to multiple ACT information requests throughout 2014.

The town also said Ross, an ACT member who also writes for the website Greater Greater Washington, wasn’t making the request in his “capacity as a member of the media.”

The town’s lawyers claimed that Ross hand-delivered a public information act request to the town’s offices Nov. 10 that was identical to the previous one submitted by ACT. The town went on to claim that Ross returned the same day to withdraw the request and replace it with a second letter that removed references to ACT.

Ross, a longtime transit and Purple Line advocate, said last week he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling. However, he added that he would have been more disappointed if Gov. Larry Hogan hadn’t announced shortly before that the state planned to move forward with the project if Montgomery and Prince George’s counties agreed to pick up more of the cost.

Ross, ACT and the town have long been adversaries in the local fight over the fate of the 16-mile light-rail project that will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton and through parts of Chevy Chase.

In April 2014, Pat Burda, then-mayor of the town of Chevy Chase, said she expected ACT's many Public Information Act requests about the town's dealings with lobbyists.

Burda said she met with Tina Slater, ACT's former executive director, "in an effort to try to tone down their negative attacks on the town."

Based on a complaint from ACT member Ronit Dancis, the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board found that the town violated a procedural rule of open meeting law when it met with lobbyist Robert Shuster in November 2013.

With Hogan’s announcement that the Purple Line could move forward, the Town Council must decide its next step.

The council is set to discuss at a Wednesday night public hearing whether to progress with its lobbying campaign and how to deal with any potential cost-saving changes to the project.

Documents from a council meeting last month laid out exactly how the town’s lobbyists would proceed if Hogan decided to go ahead with the project. Those lobbying efforts could cost the town up to $20,000 per month.

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