The Town of Chevy Chase Council violated open meeting law when it met with lobbyist Robert Shuster in November to discuss its opposition to the Purple Line, according to a recent opinion from the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board.
Based on a complaint from Action Committee for Transit member Ronit Dancis, the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board found the Town Council violated the law when it didn’t take a public vote to close the meeting and didn’t include required information about the closed session during its next open session.
“The Act’s disclosure measures serve partly to enable a public body to assure its constituents that when the public body is meeting behind closed doors, it is doing so legally and for a reason. The Council’s use of them for the November 26 meeting might have avoided this complaint, and its neglect of them violated the Act,” wrote Board members Elizabeth Nilson and Courtney McKeldin.
Still, the Compliance Board found nothing discussed in the Nov. 26 closed meeting with Shuster was improper:
“Even so, nothing suggests to us that the Council either kept the fact of the November 26 meeting secret or improperly discussed in that meeting matters that the public was entitled to hear,” the Board wrote in its opinion.
At its January meeting, the Town Council decided to continue its existing contract with Shuster’s firm of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney for another month. On Feb. 20, it decided to award that firm and others a larger, year-long contract of $350,000 to make the Town’s pitch against the Purple Line light rail.
Dancis and the Action Committee for Transit, Purple Line supporters, criticized the Town’s tactics and hiring of Shuster. Shuster’s brother is Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
At its Feb. 13 Council meeting, the Town defended its actions and Mayor Pat Burda. Burda released a statement hitting back at the Action Committee for Transit. ACT members seized on a quote from Burda in the Washington Post in which she said the Town would not be lobbying Congress against the Purple Line, when it was evident the contract with Shuster’s firm would provide for Congressional lobbying:
To set the record straight, the Town is speaking to Members of Congress to raise the same issues we raised with the Maryland Transportation Administration in our Final Environmental impact Statement (FEIS) comments. It is our hope that through this effort of educating decision makers about the currently proposed Purple Line, that the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) will carefully consider all of the facts before them.
Proponents of the Purple Line, including the Action Committee for Transit (ACT), are attempting to distract from the obvious and abundant flaws in this project by focusing on a quote from me that was abbreviated and taken out of context. I was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “the Town is not lobbying Congress.” The statement, which I attempted to clarify before it reached the printed Sunday Post, referred specifically to an inquiry about lobbying the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I said that it would be foolish to try to lobby Congress to defund the project given Senator Mikulski’s position as Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Compliance Board opinion said the Town Council violated the law by not holding an open meeting before the Nov. 26 closed session and not voting publicly to hold that closed session.
The Town Council often holds its closed sessions just before its monthly Council meetings, and did so before the special Feb. 20 meeting in which it approved the longer contract with Shuster’s firm.
The Federal Transit Administration gave its Record of Decision (ROD) on the state’s Environmental Impact Statement on March 19, clearing the way for $900,000 worth of federal funding for the $2.37 billion.
On March 20, Maryland Transit Administration officials said they have offered seven alternatives for the Lynn Drive crossing in the Town of Chevy Chase, but the Town, officially opposed to the Purple Line, has rejected all of those.
The ROD does guarantee a minimum four-foot noise wall or retaining wall near homes from the Bethesda Station to Jones Mill Road.