A local transit group advocating for construction of a Purple Line has sued the Town of Chevy Chase, alleging that it violated Maryland’s public records law by being “resistant” to releasing documents about the town’s opposition to the light-rail proposal.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, alleges that the town denied Action Committee For Transit’s repeated public information requests for the minutes of closed meetings in which town officials reportedly discussed hiring a law firm and public relations firm to fight a Purple Line. Town officials also would not provide other documents unless the group paid “unjustified and excessive fees” of $250 to $1,345 to research the records, the lawsuit alleges.
“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.”
Town Manager Todd Hoffman said Tuesday he was limited in what he could say about a pending lawsuit but said, “We believe we have fully complied with all Maryland Public Information Act requirements.”
Hoffman said ACT’s public information requests were treated “the same” as other records requests the town has received.
Town officials have opposed the 16-mile Purple Line project for years, saying that the Maryland Transit Administration didn’t adequately study a less expensive bus option and that trains would cause environmental damage to a wooded trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring. The western end of the planned route for a Purple Line between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County would run behind the back fences of homes in Chevy Chase. The light-rail line is designed to improve east-west transit in the Washington suburbs, but Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has not yet announced whether he will continue plans to begin construction on the $2.45 billion project later this year.
The Chevy Chase Town Council voted in February 2014 to spend $29,000 monthly, or up to $350,000 total, to hire a Washington law firm as part of its Purple Line opposition. The town will reach the $350,000 limit at the end of this month, Hoffman said. The town council is scheduled to discuss at its meeting next week whether to provide more funding.
The town’s hiring of the firm Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney had drawn criticism from some Purple Line advocates because one of its lawyers working for the town is Robert L. Shuster, the brother of U.S. Rep Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Maryland officials are seeking $900 million in federal transit aid for a Purple Line.
The suit also was filed by Ben Ross, a longtime member of ACT who said the town also improperly handled his public records requests as a journalist who writes about the Purple Line.