Town of Chevy Chase Mayor: Transit Activists Threatened To Increase Purple Line Attacks

Town of Chevy Chase Mayor: Transit Activists Threatened To Increase Purple Line Attacks

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 Action Committee for Transit members Tracey Johnstone and Ronit Dancis (file photo) Model

(Updated at 5:45 p.m.) It’s no secret leaders in the Town of Chevy Chase and members of the Action Committee for Transit aren’t fond of each other.

The Town is officially opposed to the Purple Line while the Action Committee for Transit, or ACT, is very much in favor of it. That difference has caused quite the ruckus in the past few months as the Town debated and finally agreed to pay a group of lobbying firms $350,000 to fight the proposed 16-mile light rail.

On Friday, Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda said ACT’s many public information act requests about the Town’s dealings with lobbyists were expected.

Burda said she met with ACT’s former executive director several months ago “in an effort to try to tone down their negative attacks on the Town.”

In that meeting, Burda said she was told ACT would “come after us with all they had,” if the Town continued to fight the Purple Line alignment along the Georgetown Branch Extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.

“And that is exactly what is happening,” Burda said.

Tina Slater, the ACT member Burda met with, denied that’s what she said — at least in that context.

“Ms. Burda’s letter completely misrepresents what I said at our meeting last fall,” Slater said in a statement on Friday.

The incident that might have Burda fuming came this week.

On Monday, ACT distributed a press release detailing how its complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board resulted in the Board finding the Town violated some procedural rules when the Town held a November closed session with lobbyist Robert Shuster.

The Town did not announce the closed session in an open session beforehand, as is required.

Shuster is the brother of influential Pennsylvania Republican and House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster. The Town eventually chose Shuster’s firm to lead its fight against the $2.37 billion Purple Line project, but not before a public squabble with ACT and apparent out of context quote from Burda in the Washington Post.

The Compliance Board found no violations in regard to the subject matter discussed in the November meeting. The Town provided details of the closed session to Board members.

ACT’s press release led to a number of headlines (one on this website) reporting the Town had violated open meeting law, which technically it did.

Burda said those headlines don’t reflect reality:

“The complaint alleged that it was improper to conduct such discussions in a non-public executive session. The Open Meetings Compliance Board rejected this claim — the centerpiece of the complaint — and agreed that the Council was, in fact, permitted to discuss in executive session the topics that ACT insisted should have been discussed in public,” Burda wrote Friday. “The Board did identify technical procedural requirements we should adhere to when convening executive sessions. It was these technicalities — not that certain matters were inappropriately discussed in closed session — that formed the basis for ACT’s inflammatory press release that the Town ‘broke the law.’

“The Town will, of course, comply with these procedural requirements in the future. I do, however, want to assure our residents that we were adhering to the law regarding the substantive issues of the complaint,” Burda wrote.

It appears the fight will continue.

This week, ACT issued another public records request for additional correspondence between the Town’s representatives and Shuster’s firm, as well as the other firms in the $350,000 contract. ACT also issued a public information act request for all records of Town compliance with training requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

“As our recent press release stated, rather than engaging on the merits of the proposed Purple Line, ACT is engaging in distractions,” Burda wrote. “We will continue to comply with their requests, and of course with the law, but we find their tactics to reflect badly upon them and ultimately marginalize their overall mission.”

“If the Town of Chevy Chase wants to move past this discussion and discuss the substantive issues on their merits, all it has to do is conduct its business in the open,” Slater said.

The MTA hopes to start construction on the Purple Line in late 2015.

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