A Bethesda Beat article (2017-09-12) reported on a follow-up court decision that required the Town of Chevy Chase to pay $92,000 in attorneys’ fees in a Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) case. The legal dispute centered around a request for information on the Purple Line by the pro-Purple Line group Action Committee for Transit (ACT). Originally, the Town was opposed to the Purple Line.
ACT member Ben Ross sought information on the Town’s lobbying efforts against the Purple Line and the group brought a lawsuit in 2015 over the Town’s charging PIA fees of $879 prior to beginning to search for the documents. ACT argued that the fees should have been waived based on public interest. While the Town prevailed in circuit court, the Court of Special Appeals found for ACT. From the article:
In 2016, three appeals court judges ruled the town should have waived the fees and provided the information being sought because Ross is a writer and blogger on transportation issues who should have been considered a member of the media who was seeking documents in the public interest. The Maryland Public Information Act states governments may waive fees for the release of information considered to be in the public interest.
The Court of Special Appeals was unswayed by the Town’s argument that the fee waiver was unwarranted as ACT and Ross had previously made false statements against the Town and found that PIA fees could not be imposed based on the content of a requester’s previous speech. The Court remanded the case to the circuit court to determine whether attorney fees should be awarded to ACT’s pro bono attorneys, the firm of Baker Hostetler. The circuit court ultimately granted ACT $92,000 in attorney fees, roughly halved from the attorney request of $198,000.
Eliot Feldman, an attorney with Baker Hostetler, said Tuesday the ruling was precedent setting. He said governments in Maryland, whether large or small, must not use fee waivers as leverage to prevent public information from being released.
“You can’t use fees as a barrier to access to information, particularly against those who are entitled to information such as journalists and nonprofit organizations,” Feldman said.
The Town of Chevy Chase had not yet reviewed the circuit court holding and was unable to provide a comment for the article.
He said there is no plan to appeal the ruling to seek greater attorneys’ fees.
Ross said the transit group gleaned new information about the town’s lobbying efforts against the light-rail project after receiving the information. For example, he said, the group determined the town was employing the public relations group Xenophon Strategies to oppose the project.
The group also received documents related to the town’s contracts with the lobbying firms Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney; Chambers Conlon & Harwell; and Alexander & Cleaver. The town spent tens of thousands of dollars paying the firms to oppose the light-rail project, according to court records.
Ronit Dancis, ACT’s president, said Tuesday the court rulings in favor of the transit group and its attorneys “set an important precedent for the public’s right to know in the state of Maryland.”
The town stopped opposing the light-rail project in the summer of 2015 and shifted to a strategy focused on mitigating the line’s impact on town residents. The town has never been part of the ongoing federal lawsuit brought by two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail that is now being considered in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Purple Line construction began last month after the state signed a $900 million grant agreement with the federal government. Prior to that, the D.C. appeals court reinstated the project’s federal approval, which allowed construction to proceed as it considers the ongoing lawsuit that now hinges on whether a new environmental study is needed to determine if Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues would affect Purple Line ridership.
If completed, the Purple Line will stretch from downtown Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.