Photo by Nick Thompson on Flickr.
While Chevy Chase spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against the Purple Line, town officials are demanding over $1,000 to provide documents about their campaign. Meanwhile, they’ve asked Maryland to waive fees for their own information request.
When the Action Committee for Transit filed requests under Maryland’s Public Information Act, the town government demanded $1,025 to produce documents about the lobbying effort, but the law provides for fee waivers when requests are in the public interest.
The town’s Purple Line lobbying is an issue in tomorrow’s election for town leaders. One candidate, Donald Farren, explicitly supports the Purple Line; others have also voiced concerns about the town’s move to spend so much money on lobbying.
Chevy Chase puts big money into lobbying against the line
Town leaders have long opposed the Purple Line, which will run through the town for half a mile along its 16-mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
The town’s latest step was in December 2013, when it quietly hired the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for $20,000 a month to lobby the state and federal governments. This move came after the line had gone through years of planning and public review and won approval from county, state, and federal governments.
In January, when the move became public, it turned out that one of the firm’s lawyers is Robert Shuster, brother of US Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Both Maryland and the federal government currently expect federal funding for the Purple Line.
The Town’s contract with the law firm has been problematic in other ways as well. A state board found that Chevy Chase violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act in November 2013 when it interviewed the firm. And two of the five town councilmembers have described irregularities in the hiring process.
Nonetheless, the town voted in February to extend the contract, adding two more lobbying firms as subcontractors and raising the cost to $29,000 per month plus expenses, or up to $350,000 total.
ACT files public records requests to find out more
ACT, a transit advocacy group and long-time supporter of the Purple Line, wanted to find out what this $29,000 per month (plus expenses) was going for. (Disclosure: I am a non-voting board member of ACT.) Last month, ACT filed two requests under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA): one for the town’s agreements, contracts, invoices, bills, correspondence, and meeting minutes related to the three lobbying firms; and a second for town records about the public relations firm Xenophon Strategies. ACT also filed a third request for town records about compliance with the new training requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
The PIA is a Maryland law analogous to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It applies to state and local governmental bodies in Maryland and gives the public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay.
Under the PIA, anybody can request records. The government may charge a “reasonable fee” for the time spent looking for and preparing these records, although the government may waive the fee if release of the records is in the public interest. The first 2 hours of search and preparation time are free.
On April 17, the Chevy Chase town government responded to ACT’s PIA requests with a demand for fees: $700 for 3 hours for the request about the law firms (5 hours total), $250 for 3 hours for the request about the public relations firm (5 hours total), and $125 for 1 hour for the request about the training requirements (3 hours total). ACT would have to pay these deposits before town officials would start looking for the documents.
ACT asks for fee waiver; Chevy Chase says no
ACT promptly asked the town to waive the fees as provided in the PIA, because ACT was seeking this information for public rather than commercial purposes and because the requested disclosures would contribute to public understanding of government operations and activities.
But officials denied the request, stating, “It is anticipated that the Town will expend a significant amount of time researching and processing your requests.”
Is this a legal reason to deny a fee waiver request? The Maryland PIA Manual mentions only the ability of the applicant to pay, whether the information is for a public rather than a commercial purpose, and “other relevant factors”. For more about these factors, the PIA Manual advises looking at case law for the FOIA. And while the FOIA Guide has a six-factor test for fee waivers, none of the factors is how long it will take the agency to look for and prepare the documents.
In any case, this is how the matter currently stands: if ACT wants a government body’s public records on the government body’s expenditure of public money, ACT has to pay that government body $1,075. This may not be much for a municipality with an $8 million surplus and 1,000 households. But it’s far more than ACT is willing to pay for public records whose release is in the public interest.
And so the Town of Chevy Chase achieves its stated goal of preventing Purple Line supporters from finding out about its taxpayer-funded activities. What Chevy Chase is getting for $350,000 in public money will remain a secret for now.
Ironically, on April 16, the day before the Town told ACT to pay up, Chevy Chase made its own PIA request to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). The Town requested all of MTA’s records about 3 organizations (ACT, Purple Line Now, and The Purple Rail Alliance) and 54 people belonging to those organizations. (Disclosure: I am one of them.)
And the fees? Chevy Chase asked MTA for a waiver.