In the town of Chevy Chase, Md., where the trees are tall, the lawns are lush and the median household income is $250,000, the outcome of last week’s town election never seemed in doubt.
Two incumbents were on the ballot, running unopposed.
But a surprise write-in candidate won 168 votes, enough to knock off Pat Burda, architect of the town’s robust opposition to the light-rail Purple Line. A kind of civic panic set in. Attorneys were retained. A member of the ethics board declared that the 2,800-resident community had suffered “a trauma.”
And as it became clear that the write-in votes were the result of a stealth organizing campaign, phrases like “voter suppression,” “subversion of democracy” and even “coup” lit up the town e-mail discussion group.
An insurgency, brewing for years, had come of age. And although the Purple Line might have been a factor, there were others as well: the alleged trampling of private-property rights in the name of public values; accusations that a small cadre of activists was running the town without transparency or inclusion; a feeling among those with minority opinions that they don’t just lose but are disrespected in the process.
“A lot of people have had a quiet anger,” said Fred Cecere, 69, a retired Army doctor and political novice who says he was as surprised as anyone that he defeated Burda.
After nearly a week of heated wrangling over whether he filed his financial disclosure form in a timely manner — town law is murky on this point — Cecere will be sworn in at a Town Council meeting Wednesday night.
Many who wrote in Cecere’s name say their town has become farcically overregulated, rendering the simplest home additions a months-long or even years-long struggle. A tree ordinance prescribes a six-month jail term or a $1,000 fine for a second offender caught cutting without a town permit. So far, no one has done time.
Others say they are appalled by the town’s wobbly finances. The council had to dip into its $8 million reserve fund this year to close a $1 million budget shortfall. The deficit was the result of faulty state-revenue forecasts, officials say. But critics question what the town is really getting for certain expenditures, including hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers, lobbyists and engineers in an attempt to kill the Purple Line, which would run along the back fences of some residents.
Last year, parents at overcrowded Chevy Chase Elementary School were infuriated to learn that town officials had lobbied the Montgomery County school system to eliminate two portable classrooms planned for its sixth-graders.
Mayor Kathy Strom said the trailers violated an open-space agreement. The two trailers were reduced to one. Parents said the town was placing aesthetics over the needs of its schoolchildren.
“There were many disaffected residents who felt their voices were not heard,” said Ed Albert, an asset manager who helped coordinate the write-in campaign.
Burda, 57, who has spent six years on the council, said there was never any intention to conceal the public’s business. “It’s not like we’re trying to hide anything,” she said. “This is an open, public process.”
Her supporters said those who backed the write-in effort had their own axes to grind. Strom pointed out, for example, that Albert had to get a legal variance to build a fence around his front yard.
“He was upset he had to go through the process,” Strom said. Albert retorted that it wasn’t the process but how he was treated.
Cecere’s win threw the town’s leadership into a frenzy. On Thursday, the Election Board declined to certify the results and referred the matter to the ethics board because of “substantial evidence” that Cecere violated the law by not submitting a financial disclosure statement before the election. After two long meetings, much of them in closed session, the board voted 2 to 1 Monday that there was insufficient evidence to prove a violation; the town’s law is unclear about the obligations of write-in candidates.
What the ethics board found more objectionable was the stealth employed to elect Cecere. Board member Scott Fosler deemed it “very, very troubling.”
Albert said that friends encouraged him to run for the council, but he pleaded time constraints. Instead, Albert e-mailed like-minded residents on Election Day, encouraging them to show up at town hall between 5 and 8 p.m. — a period “ideal for the element of surprise” — and write Cecere’s name on the ballot.
“Because they believe they are unopposed we have a good window to change back to a friendly, thoughtful council,” Albert wrote. In a nod to discretion, he added: “We have worked very hard to keep this among the right group.”
Cecere, who agreed to have his name put in play about a week before the election, said he expected only to deliver a wake-up call to the incumbents — not to win the seat outright. But he collected 168 votes to Burda’s 119. Some residents called Albert’s e-mail “the smoking gun” and declared that the contest had been brazenly hijacked.
“It wasn’t a fair fight,” said Keith Blizzard, a marketing consultant and 20-year resident who voted for Burda. “There were some people in the know through social media, and that’s a modern phenomenon,” he said.
There was a simple reason voters kept the write-in campaign under the radar, Cecere said: “They kept quiet because they feel tyrannized and bullied.”
Cecere’s arrival on the five-member council is significant because he could form a majority with two other members who in recent years have sometimes opposed Strom, Burda and fellow member Vicky Taplin on land-use and spending issues.
One of his likely allies is member John Bickerman, who won reelection last week. He said he became involved in town politics in 2013 after setback rules left him with a rear deck so small there was no room for a table.
“I can’t eat on my deck,” said Bickerman, a lawyer who specializes in mediation and conflict resolution. He called the regulatory process “condescending and obnoxious.”Another council member, Al Lang, ran six years ago after he encountered resistance trying to convert a screened-in porch to a room for his aging father.
To those who would question Cecere’s election, Bickerman offers this: No laws were broken, and no one’s right to vote was suppressed. “There’s no obligation to be transparent in a strategy for an election,” he added.
Longtime residents say the council’s alleged overzealousness is rooted in an earlier era, when the booming real estate market of the early 2000s drove developers to clear-cut lots and replace Cape Cods, bungalows and brick colonials with Potomac-size “McMansions.”
Residents feared that their little town — bounded by Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues, Bradley Lane and East-West Highway — would be transformed for the worse.
The council imposed a six-month building moratorium in 2005, freezing renovations and new construction. Ordinances and regulations, controlling everything from fences to bay windows, were hammered out, along with a 117-page handbook that says development traditionally “has been guided by a specific vision of a serene and elegant community.”
“I lived through the bad old days before there was a building ordinance or a tree ordinance, and it was ugly,” said Jean Shorett, a 27-year resident. “On any given day, you could come out and find a house bulldozed and people cutting down major healthy trees.”
But other residents, some younger or newer to the town, say the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
They cite the regulations surrounding tree removal as especially onerous. Property owners seeking to cut down any tree 24 inches or larger in circumference must have a permit approved by the town arborist and town manager attesting that the tree is dead, dying or hazardous.
If turned down, residents can appeal to a Tree Ordinance Board, which applies a series of nine criteria to its decision, including the overall effect on the town’s tree canopy, the “uniqueness” or “desirability” of the tree in question and the applicant’s willingness to plant replacement trees.
Of the 30 appeals heard by the board since 2006, 24 have been granted. Even supporters of the tree regulations acknowledge that the process is rough on applicants, many of whom have safety concerns about the proximity of the trees to their homes and resent that their motives are being questioned.
“People felt disrespected, peppered with questions,” said Taplin, an ally of Burda and Strom. She said there have been efforts to counsel board members on their interactions with citizens, even providing some training to improve their listening skills.
Upon joining the board, Cecere said his first order of business will be helping the town heal after a nasty few days. “I’m going to listen,” he said.