Purple Line Advocates Sue Town Of Chevy Chase
A group of Purple Line supporters sued the Town of Chevy Chase on Friday, claiming the Town government violated the state’s Public Information Act by not providing details of its lobbying campaign against the light rail project.
The Action Committee for Transit (ACT) and Bethesda resident Ben Ross filed the suit in District Court in regards to a series of requests made last year for detailed minutes of the Town Council’s closed sessions.
ACT says those closed sessions dealt with the Town’s $29,000-per-month contract with lobbyists helping it fight the Purple Line at the federal and state levels.
It’s the latest in the battle between ACT and the Town. The Town is officially opposed to the Purple Line and has frequently been a target of the transit advocacy group.
The suit filed Friday alleged the Town denied various ACT requests for Town of Council minutes in closed sessions about the lobbying effort. It also claimed the Town wrongfully referred to past ACT public information requests as reason why it couldn’t provide the required two hours of free research.
ACT made multiple attempts to get the information throughout 2014. The Town said it would need fees ranging from $700 to $1,345 to research the information.
In June, one of ACT’s members got to review some documents in the Town government’s offices, but claimed the information compiled was missing correspondence between the Town and the lobbyists.
“For two decades plus, Maryland’s sunshine laws have required towns to disclose whom they hire, for what purpose, and at what cost. The public and ACT have a right to know the details of the Town’s contracts with lobbyists and consultants and what they are doing to delay or prevent the construction of the Purple Line,” ACT President Nick Brand said in a press release. “The Town government cannot use exorbitant fees to hide their taxpayer-funded activities.”
In April 2014, then-Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda 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.
In her meeting with Slater, 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.
Slater said Burda’s recollection of the meeting completely misrepresented the conversation.
A few weeks later, the Town fired back by issuing its own public information act request to get all public records and electronic communications between the Maryland Transit Administration and Purple Line supporters in ACT, Purple Line NOW! and The Purple Rail Alliance.
The MTA is the state agency in charge of the planned 16-mile light rail that would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
In a press release on its lawsuit, ACT pointed to a recent letter from the Town to Gov. Hogan bemoaning “the lack of transparency and tangible information” about Purple Line ridership estimates.
“The Town Council added that ‘the people of Maryland deserve clear, honest and objective information regarding how their money will be spent,'” read the ACT press release. “ACT couldn’t agree more.”
A list of ACT’s various public information act requests and Town responses are available on the group’s website.