Source Of Controversial Write-In Campaign Revealed
Secretive effort to oust Town of Chevy Chase councilmember divides town
Ed Albert sent the email four hours before polls closed May 5 with specific instructions to share it only with “those you feel 100% certain are like minded.”
“Please vote today for John Bickerman and write-in Fred Cecere,” Albert wrote. “Together, we can TAKE BACK OUR TOWN! Between 5-8 [p.m.] is ideal for the element of surprise, but anytime is better than no vote.”
The secretive effort to write in Cecere over choosing Vice Mayor Pat Burda for an open Town Council seat has divided the Town of Chevy Chase, a half-square mile incorporated town of just more than 2,800 residents.
While Cecere came in second for two open town council seats, the town’s Election Board ruled it can’t certify the results because Cecere provided his financial disclosure forms only an hour before polls closed at 8 p.m.
The election and aftermath has created “immense anger in the community,” with “neighbors pitted against neighbors,” and “friends against friends,” according to one resident who asked not to be named.
Residents on the town’s private listserv have been trading barbs since last week, with one starting an online poll asking if the town should redo its election.
Albert, the man at the center of Cecere’s write-in campaign, told Bethesda Beat Monday that he stands by the move and that the Election Board was wrong not to certify the results. Albert said the write-in campaign was initiated over concerns about the town’s spending, especially on issues such as the light-rail Purple Line.
“This town, they’re supposed to pick up our leaves, trash and snow. That’s what they’re supposed to do,” Albert said. “So why do you need to have closed meetings all the time? We spent $1 million on the Purple Line lobbying last year. Why didn’t you come to the town and ask people if we should spend $1,000 per house on this?”
Bickerman, Burda’s fellow incumbent who was running for reelection, came in first. Albert wrote in his email that Bickerman “is amazingly level headed and fair which is what we need.”
In February, Bickerman and councilmember Al Lang questioned Burda in a council meeting about whether the town should continue a $29,000-a-month contract with a K Street firm to lobby against the Purple Line on the town’s behalf. While both Bickerman and Lang said they are against the light rail, they said they were no longer sure the lobbying deal was worth the money.
Albert said other issues—including Town Mayor Kathy Strom’s appeal to Montgomery County Public Schools to place one instead of two portable classrooms at Chevy Chase Elementary—illustrated that town leadership has strayed too far outside town matters.
Strom, who wasn’t up for reelection last week, is viewed as an ally of Burda. So is councilmember Vicky Taplin, whom Burda and Strom supported for the town treasurer position over Lang.
Others claimed Albert’s motivation behind the write-in campaign stemmed from a case in which he hoped to build a new fence near his home but on a town right-of-way. In August 2014, the town issued stop-work orders on the fence because it wasn’t approved by the council, which makes rulings on building code variances.
The town later compromised with Albert and neighbors who also were asking for permission to build the fence. Albert said Monday that his variance was approved, meaning it couldn’t have been the source of his opposition to Burda.
“This is about all the actions that the town has taken without the support of the broader residents,” Albert said.
The town’s Ethics Commission is set to meet Monday night to discuss whether Cecere complied with its financial disclosure laws. Last week, Cecere told Bethesda Beat he expects to be installed on the new council during a scheduled meeting Wednesday.
Burda said she didn’t know of the write-in campaign until about an hour before the polls closed at 8 p.m.
“I’m really saddened by the process and I think that the real victim here is the community,” Burda said Friday. “I certainly don’t see myself as the victim. I think the people of the Town of Chevy Chase are the victims.”
Burda encouraged the town to enter into the contract with Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney to lobby against the Purple Line—the light-rail project that would run along the town’s edge. She also was a leading voice against certain high-density development near the town’s borders.
Last year, she formed the Coalition of Bethesda Communities, a group of 19 neighborhood organizations and municipalities concerned with increased density that could be a part of the ongoing downtown Bethesda sector plan rewrite.
Burda also led the town’s effort to build a park on two Montgomery County parking lots on the town’s western border. The town hired a land use attorney and a planner to come up with a concept and implementation plan for a 2.6-acre park to present to county planners.
Albert said the amount of people who wrote in Cecere’s name proves there is a significant number of residents who share his views of Burda’s leadership.
Burda came in third with 119 votes, 49 behind Cecere’s 168.
“You think 168 people responded to my email sent at 3:58 [p.m.] on election day,” Albert said. “Something’s got to be wrong beyond the surface. That’s a lot of people for a write-in vote.”