The controversy over a secret write-in campaign in the tiny Town of Chevy Chase has been simmering since the town’s election in May.
It boiled over Wednesday night.
During a Town Council session, Mayor Al Lang openly ignored calls from another council member to hear a presentation from the town’s Ethics Commission and Election Board on its recommendations for changes to the town’s election law.
Pat Burda, the incumbent put off the council by the write-in campaign, frequently interrupted the proceedings from the back of the town’s meeting room.
So did others, including Ed Albert—the resident who helped organize the effort to oust Burda with an email asking supporters to keep the write-in candidacy of Fred Cecere a secret.
Once he was allowed to present, Barry Hager, the chairman of the town’s Ethics Commission, accused Lang of trying to “screw us.”
Five out of six members of the Ethics Commission and Election Board criticized Bickerman and Lang in a 30-page report for not answering questions as to their involvement in Cecere’s write-in campaign and the effort to oust Burda, a political opponent.
They also recommended write-in candidates be legally required to submit a certificate of candidacy 14 days before an election.
In the seconds after losing a 3-2 vote on the new write-in rules, council member John Bickerman—visibly upset—packed his stuff into a backpack, muttered something to Lang and left the meeting with two unrelated items left on the agenda.
By then, the meeting had devolved into chaos, with council members talking over each other, members of the Ethics Commission and Election Board talking over council members and enough of the roughly 40 people in attendance talking loudly enough that it was hard to hear the actual motion the council had just voted on.
To some, it was emblematic of the way the May election has split the town of about 2,800 residents into two.
“My recollection of [town council members] was that they were polite, they were dignified, they liked each other, spent the town’s money to go to the Maryland Municipal League conference or whatever the thing is in Ocean City,” Election Board Chairman Steve Lawton told the council. “You sure yell at each other a lot. You sure interrupt each other a lot."
The faction led by Lang, Bickerman and Cecere say the “spontaneous” write-in campaign (Cecere objected to the term “stealth”) was successful because enough people in the town were tired of onerous building variance laws, environmental initiatives and a costly lobbying campaign against the Purple Line led by Burda, fellow council members Vickty Taplin and Kathy Strom and some of the committee members they appointed.
Lang on Wednesday said the Ethics Commission and Election Board (with the exception of the member Lang appointed earlier this year) had strayed from their original purpose to review the town’s rules for write-in candidates. He called their report a “political philosophy.”
“[The report] doesn’t handle the issues in the town with respect to why 168 people were so upset that in three days they managed to get their act quote unquote together, ethically, or not ethically or however you want to say it,” Lang said. “They managed to get their act together and get enough votes for Fred Cecere. That to me is phenomenal.”
Bickerman echoed that sentiment.
“So long as you give certain individuals the power to tell other residents how to behave and what to do, you are going to create a division,” Bickerman said. “The underlying problem of this election isn’t the election. The underlying problem is that there has been a significant percent of the population that has felt not well-served and they participated in a legal election under the rules that existed.”
Eventually, Strom, Taplin and Lang voted in favor of a compromise that will require write-in candidates to file a certificate of candidacy and financial disclosure form at least seven days before an election.
That appeared to upset Bickerman, who told Lang something that couldn’t be heard amid the commotion.
“Oh stop it,” Lang could be heard telling Bickerman, before Bickerman left the meeting.
The four remaining members of the five-member council continued the meeting, haggling over the idea of joining the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce and if town committees should be assigned to revise the town’s building variance laws and tree removal rules.