A Montgomery County judge has ordered the Town of Chevy Chase to pay Purple Line supporters $92,000 for legal expenses they incurred after suing the town for government records about lobbyists it had hired to fight the light-rail project.
Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Cheryl A. McCally ruled that the town must pay Bethesda resident Ben Ross and the Action Committee For Transit (ACT) for legal fees and other costs in their fight for town documents under the Maryland Public Information Act.
In her Sept. 6 ruling, McCally also said the town was not required to disclose minutes from closed meetings. The ruling was first reported by Bethesda Magazine.
Ross, a published author and longtime Purple Line advocate, and the pro-transit group ACT sued the town in 2015. They alleged that town officials had charged “unjustified and excessive fees” for records about the lobbyists and other consultants whom the town hired to fight the Purple Line’s construction.
McCally dismissed the lawsuit in 2015 after finding that the town didn’t violate the state’s public records law, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals threw out her ruling in 2016. The appeals court said McCally did not have enough information to determine whether the town’s fees were “arbitrary or capricious.”
The appeals court noted that town officials, in refusing to waive the fees, had pointed out that ACT had previously criticized town leaders for opposing the Purple Line and that Ross had been active in the group. The court said the First Amendment protected Ross and ACT from “the imposition of financial burdens” based on their criticism of town officials.
The appeals court also said the town had to respond to Ross’s and ACT’s records requests without charge. The court noted that Ross, who is also a blogger, had submitted his request as a member of the media and that ACT was a grass roots organization that had promised to share the records with the public.
The state’s public records law allows government agencies to charge a “reasonable fee” for researching and providing records to the public. The law also says fees must be waived for the first two hours of researching the records and may be waived when an applicant can’t pay or when it’s “in the public interest.”
Construction on the Purple Line began Aug. 28. The 16-mile light-rail line, which is scheduled to open to service in 2022, will run trains along the three-mile Georgetown Branch Trail, which runs behind homes in the Town of Chevy Chase. The line will extend east to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
In separate legal action, two Chevy Chase residents are suing the project over its environmental impacts. However, a federal appeals court allowed construction to begin while that case is pending.