Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Pat Burda’s term doesn’t end until next year.
But with a May 6 vote for three other Council seats approaching, many in the Town are criticizing Burda and her backing of a $350,000 contract with a group of lobbying firms to work against the planned Purple Line.
“The next contract we do has to be done with due diligence,” said incumbent Town Councilmember Al Lang during a candidates forum on Thursday. “Our Town mayor gave one of the bidders information about how to strengthen their bid.”
That allegation elicited a quizzical look from Kathy Strom, another incumbent up for reelection who voted with Burda in favor of the lobbying contract with firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. Lang voted against it, saying the process for selecting the firm — which had two month-long contracts with the Town before the year-long contract was awarded — was out of whack.
“Without divulging executive session discussion, I can say unequivocally that any communication with [Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney] was done at the council’s directive and all bidders were treated fairly,” Burda said in an email on Friday.
Lang elaborated after the forum, saying that Burda told Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney they should include a group to do lobbying at the state level to strengthen their bid. Lang claimed Burda didn’t tell that information to any of the other four firms up for the contract.
Burda denied that. But it seems the handling of the contract, and what precise strategies the contract allows, is a prominent issue throughout the Town of 3,000 residents.
On Wednesday night, Town resident Jacob Bardin wrote a message on the Town’s listserv in which he claimed “not much” benefit was coming from the lobbying contract.
The Town to date has spent about $130,000 on lobbying against the Purple Line, including the two month-long contracts with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney in December and January. The Town began paying the firm $29,000 in February and is set to spend $29,000 a month for the next year.
Bardin said he was displeased to find the publicly available Town agreement with the firm does not spell out specific objectives of the lobbying effort.
“No written status reports are being provided to the Town by BIR,” Bardin wrote. “I do not have any experience with ‘government services’ (lobbying) however in 25 years of professional life I have never seen a contract like this that does not specify what the buyer is getting in return for their money.”
“I am in constant contact with BIR and we have weekly update calls and monthly full council calls to review the work being performed,” Burda said. “We do not just write monthly checks without knowing what is being done on our behalf and we can get our of the contract at any time if we feel they are not performing.”
Lang said he unsuccessfully advocated for a formal Request for Proposals or Request for Information during the vetting process of the lobbyists. He also said the inclusion of state lobbyists — at Burda’s request — increased the monthly cost of the contract from $20,000 to $29,000.
“The other firms only had 30-minute conference calls. That’s how the decision was made,” Lang said after the Thursday night forum. “I don’t know how you possibly do that. We had no price negotiations. I could go on and on and on. It’s a mess and I could not vote for that kind of contract, even though I know we need more resources.”
Strom said Lang’s comment during the forum was “out of line” and that she knows of no basis for it.
“It was distressing to hear that,” Strom said.
Lang and Strom are running for reelection against five challengers. David Lublin, who sided with Strom and Burda on the contract, isn’t running for reelection, leaving one open seat.
At the forum, moderator Charles Duffy asked each candidate for specific things they would do about the Purple Line, the 16-mile light rail system that will run behind Town homes on the existing Georgetown Branch Trail.
At least two of the candidates — Grant Davies and Donald Farren — also expressed reservations about the way the Town handled the contract and what purpose the contract is serving.
Farren made his support of the Purple Line clear. Afterward, he said he doesn’t think the majority of the Town’s residents support the Town’s official position against the transit project as currently proposed.
Davies said the whole situation has given the Town “a black eye” in the view of others in Montgomery County. He suggested partnering with other groups — such as the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce — to push for the completion of a Capital Crescent Trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue.
Others said they were fine with the manner in which the Town brought in the lobbyists.
“Everyone on the Council is a volunteer. They’re not all experts on every issue,” said candidate Kathie Legg. “I think it’s important to bring in experts, and if that’s a lobbying group to help explain and help mitigate, then I trust the Council is making the right decisions.”