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Purple Line meets a stone wall in Chevy Chase

While Chevy Chase spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against the Purple Line, town officials are demanding over $1,000 to provide documents about their campaign. Meanwhile, they've asked Maryland to waive fees for their own information request.


Photo by Nick Thompson on Flickr.

When the Action Committee for Transit filed requests under Maryland's Public Information Act, the town government demanded $1,025 to produce documents about the lobbying effort, but the law provides for fee waivers when requests are in the public interest.

The town's Purple Line lobbying is an issue in tomorrow's election for town leaders. One candidate, Donald Farren, explicitly supports the Purple Line; others have also voiced concerns about the town's move to spend so much money on lobbying.

Chevy Chase puts big money into lobbying against the line

Town leaders have long opposed the Purple Line, which will run through the town for half a mile along its 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

The town's latest step was in December 2013, when it quietly hired the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for $20,000 a month to lobby the state and federal governments. This move came after the line had gone through years of planning and public review and won approval from county, state, and federal governments.

In January, when the move became public, it turned out that one of the firm's lawyers is Robert Shuster, brother of US Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Both Maryland and the federal government currently expect federal funding for the Purple Line.

The Town's contract with the law firm has been problematic in other ways as well. A state board found that Chevy Chase violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act in November 2013 when it interviewed the firm. And two of the five town councilmembers have described irregularities in the hiring process.

Nonetheless, the town voted in February to extend the contract, adding two more lobbying firms as subcontractors and raising the cost to $29,000 per month plus expenses, or up to $350,000 total.

ACT files public records requests to find out more

ACT, a transit advocacy group and long-time supporter of the Purple Line, wanted to find out what this $29,000 per month (plus expenses) was going for. (Disclosure: I am a non-voting board member of ACT.) Last month, ACT filed two requests under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA): one for the town's agreements, contracts, invoices, bills, correspondence, and meeting minutes related to the three lobbying firms; and a second for town records about the public relations firm Xenophon Strategies. ACT also filed a third request for town records about compliance with the new training requirements of the Open Meetings Act.

The PIA is a Maryland law analogous to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It applies to state and local governmental bodies in Maryland and gives the public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay.

Under the PIA, anybody can request records. The government may charge a "reasonable fee" for the time spent looking for and preparing these records, although the government may waive the fee if release of the records is in the public interest. The first 2 hours of search and preparation time are free.

On April 17, the Chevy Chase town government responded to ACT's PIA requests with a demand for fees: $700 for 3 hours for the request about the law firms (5 hours total), $250 for 3 hours for the request about the public relations firm (5 hours total), and $125 for 1 hour for the request about the training requirements (3 hours total). ACT would have to pay these deposits before town officials would start looking for the documents.

ACT asks for fee waiver; Chevy Chase says no

ACT promptly asked the town to waive the fees as provided in the PIA, because ACT was seeking this information for public rather than commercial purposes and because the requested disclosures would contribute to public understanding of government operations and activities.

But officials denied the request, stating, "It is anticipated that the Town will expend a significant amount of time researching and processing your requests."

Is this a legal reason to deny a fee waiver request? The Maryland PIA Manual mentions only the ability of the applicant to pay, whether the information is for a public rather than a commercial purpose, and "other relevant factors". For more about these factors, the PIA Manual advises looking at case law for the FOIA. And while the FOIA Guide has a six-factor test for fee waivers, none of the factors is how long it will take the agency to look for and prepare the documents.

In any case, this is how the matter currently stands: if ACT wants a government body's public records on the government body's expenditure of public money, ACT has to pay that government body $1,075. This may not be much for a municipality with an $8 million surplus and 1,000 households. But it's far more than ACT is willing to pay for public records whose release is in the public interest.

And so the Town of Chevy Chase achieves its stated goal of preventing Purple Line supporters from finding out about its taxpayer-funded activities. What Chevy Chase is getting for $350,000 in public money will remain a secret for now.

Ironically, on April 16, the day before the Town told ACT to pay up, Chevy Chase made its own PIA request to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). The Town requested all of MTA's records about 3 organizations (ACT, Purple Line Now, and The Purple Rail Alliance) and 54 people belonging to those organizations. (Disclosure: I am one of them.)

And the fees? Chevy Chase asked MTA for a waiver.

Miriam Schoenbaum lives in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. She serves on the MARC Riders' Advisory Council and is a member of the Action Committee for Transit

Comments

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Is there an attorney willing to sue Chevy Chase for violating the PIA?

by Redline SOS on May 5, 2014 3:49 pm • linkreport

A PIA request coming from GGW, or another organization that is more "news media" and less advocacy, should have a much better chance of receiving a fee waiver under the PIA.

by Goldfish33 on May 5, 2014 4:04 pm • linkreport

Fee waivers are specifically intended for advocacy organizations such as ACT is. It's all part of that 'open government' thing.

The Chevy Chase Town Council keeps forgetting it is a taxpayer -supported entity that is responsible to taxpayers and not a private entity. If they have nothing to hide, then they should stop acting as if they do.

by Capt. Hilts on May 5, 2014 4:09 pm • linkreport

I can almost guarantee some of that lobbying money came from the town's three speed cameras on Connecticut. You know, the cameras that GGW readers and editors love so much.

by Fred on May 5, 2014 4:29 pm • linkreport

No. Those cameras don't belong to the Town. I think the village of Ch Ch owns them. Different municipalities.

The Town gets the $8million as a return on tax payments. All municipalities do.

by Capt. Hilts on May 5, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

Per the invaluable Maryland Juice, the town has huge sums to lobby with because:

"... under state law they are refunded 1/6 of county income taxes paid by town residents. In a recent count, the Town of Chevy Chase with a population of 2,907 got almost as much money as Takoma Park with 17,905 (much less affluent) people ($2,174,114 vs. $2,330,225)."

by Ronit A Dancis on May 5, 2014 4:44 pm • linkreport

Yay for the city spending money given to it by the county to fight the county on something that everyone else has come to terms with.

by Drumz on May 5, 2014 4:47 pm • linkreport

Ronit: that's a real 'them's that has, gets' tax policy!

There should be a cap on how much spare taxpayer money a municipality should be able to accumulate.

by Capt. Hilts on May 5, 2014 4:57 pm • linkreport

@Fred: the speed cameras belong to Chevy Chase Village.

http://www.chevychasevillagemd.gov/c/390/safe-speed-program

This post is about the Town of Chevy Chase, which is a different municipality.

by Miriam Schoenbaum on May 5, 2014 5:29 pm • linkreport

@Capt Hilts: While there is plenty of leeway for discretionary fee waivers, the only category of requesters that are entitled to fee waivers under the FOIA are members of the news media. The document with info about the Maryland PIA linked to in the article is not entirely explicit, but it recommends turning to the federal FOIA guidance for more info. So it is reasonable to expect that a news media organization, like GGW, would have a better chance of getting their fees waived, and a better argument to make on appeal, if they were turned down.

by Goldfish33 on May 5, 2014 7:12 pm • linkreport

Goldfish33. That is not correct. If the requester is acting in the public interest and plans to release the information to the public - as is the case here - fees should be waived:

http://www.oag.state.md.us/Opengov/Chapter7.pdf

by Capt. Hilts on May 5, 2014 10:34 pm • linkreport

@Drumz technically the Town is spending money given to it by the county to lobby the state (and the Feds) against something that the county and the state are spending funds to make a reality.

@Capt Hilts: in the past few years Montgomery County budget cuts have been severe, and included cutting the library budget to 3/4 of what it had been. County income tax that could have prevented some of those cuts was instead sitting in an account somewhere, accumulating interest for the Town of Chevy Chase - all because the state formula doesn't include a reasonable ceiling on how much income tax should be returned.

by Ronit A Dancis on May 5, 2014 10:56 pm • linkreport

why doesn't the chevy chase town council just rename itself to "Friends of People who Hate Trains For Those People"?

by Mike on May 6, 2014 6:56 am • linkreport

Wonder how many of these griping Chevy Chasers will, after the Purple Line is built regardless, end up riding it anyway? :-))

by DaveG on May 6, 2014 7:58 am • linkreport

Mike, I think FPHTFTP is a great acronym for the Town!

by Capt. Hilts on May 6, 2014 8:38 am • linkreport

@DaveG:

Probably not that many. Some will use it to commute to College Park, but that's about it. Silver Spring and Bethesda are so close that it's not worth it.

The trail will get a lot of local use. There will be some loss of scenic appeal, but the useability will be so much greater.

by Crickey7 on May 6, 2014 9:08 am • linkreport

Crickey7, last night I had to drive from Bethesda to Silver Spring - at 6:30 - and it took 40 minutes. I would MUCH rather have ridden a light rail that doesn't sit in traffic.

by Capt. Hilts on May 6, 2014 9:10 am • linkreport

"There should be a cap on how much spare taxpayer money a municipality should be able to accumulate."

If there was a cap there would be no spare taxpayer money accumulating... and not because it was given back.

by Bill Smith on May 6, 2014 9:23 am • linkreport

Surely there is an attorney reading this who might be willing to threaten a lawsuit?

by William on May 6, 2014 9:25 am • linkreport

Ronit A Dancis -- I haven't fully researched it, but I am not sure you are correct about asserting that the county and state "give money" to the Town. Maryland is somewhat unique in that half the "state" income tax collected goes to the localities. It's really half-state/half-locality "state" income tax.

As far as the county goes, they give a return to the individual localities within the county for providing local services, which in unincorporated areas are fully provided by the county. Although Takoma Park complains that they don't get the full amount back, and I presume other municipalities have the same complaint.

FWIW, in the early part of last decade, the City of Ferndale Michigan was not in favor of a new I-75 interchange in their area and the county was. So the County kicked Ferndale out of the Main Street Oakland County program...

by Richard Layman on May 6, 2014 12:25 pm • linkreport

ACT should start a fundrising campaign for the $$. I'm sure there are plenty of people that would contribute. If each person gave $5, $1075 could be raised with the help of 215 people.

by Laura on May 6, 2014 1:19 pm • linkreport

Laura, that's true - but it's the principle of the thing.

The Town should not be able to price taxpayers out of seeing public documents. The Town of Chevy Chase Town Council is taxpayer supported and should be, ultimately, responsible to taxpayers.

by Capt. Hilts on May 6, 2014 1:22 pm • linkreport

Chevy Chase seems to want their community a self enclosed enclave of the uber wealthy without infringement for the public good. Though every legal obstacle was passed when voted on as this story indicates, the legal wrangling of the Town of Chevy Chase thinks they might outmaneuver the citizenry for the greater good for mass transit connections between Silver Spring and Bethesda. Funny too how a Congressman's brother is on the opposing side of this argument. What a phony.

by Sideswiped on May 16, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

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