Counties Receive Legal Issues Update at 2017 Winter #MACoCon

County officials received updates on pending state and federal legal issues on December 6 at the 2017 MACo Winter Conference. The panel was called “From the Bench: A Federal and State Legal Update” and was moderated by Maryland Delegate William Folden.

National Association of Counties (NACo) Associate Legislative Director Jack Peterson discussed several cases before the United States Supreme Court that would address: (1) whether banning political apparel at polling places violates the first amendment ; (2) how and when states can remove individuals from their voter rolls; (3) whether comments made at a public meeting must relate to the topic under consideration; and (4) whether states and local governments can collect sales tax from online retailers regardless of whether they have a physical presence within their jurisdiction.

From left to right: Jack Peterson, Lisa Oschenhirt, Timothy Baker

Peterson discussed several regulatory issues, including the recent definitional change to the federal “Waters of the United States” rule. Peterson noted that the issue would likely remain a top legislative priority for NACo. Peterson also discussed NACo’s efforts to improve the “integrated planning” option under the Clean Water Act that in theory simplifies how local governments can meet federal and state mandates for water quality.

Finally, Peterson discussed several pending federal legislative issues, including extension of the current federal budget so that the government does not run out of money and current tax reform efforts. On tax reform, key local issues included losing the deduction for local income taxes and some property taxes and the removal of the ability to refinance local municipal bonds. Peterson stated that tax reform would probably be done by the end of the year.

AquaLaw Attorney Oschenhirt discussed the permitting process and current litigation for Maryland counties subject to a Phase I or Phase II Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. Oschenhirt stated that Phase I controversies included: (1) whether the  permit applied across the entire county or just to those areas of a county that have stormwater systems; (2) whether the proposed permits go beyond the “maximum extent practicable” standard; and (3) whether nutrient credit trading will be included or not.

Delegate William Folden

Oschenhirt also noted that MACo, the Maryland Municipal League, and the Maryland Municipal Stormwater Association submitted joint comments on the new Phase II MS4 permit proposed by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). The comments raised concerns over who should be included in the permit, the geographic scope of the permit, the 20% treatment retrofit burden, and the lack of nutrient trading authority.

Oschenhirt also touched on the pending regulations for nutrient trading, staffing and program funding issues within the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load Mid-Point Assessment, tax sales, and state legislation regarding non-flushable wipes.

Maryland State Archivist and Commissioner of Land Patents Timothy Baker highlighted an optional program that is being set up by the Maryland State Archives to encourage county governments to appoint a records officer. The records officer would liaison with State Archives regarding document retention policies and infrastructure.

Public Safety, Voter Registration Among ACLU of Maryland 2018 Priorities

 

 

 

 

Representatives from MACo and the ACLU of Maryland meet on November 27, 2017, to discuss their respective legislative initiatives for the 2018 Session. A 2018 Session Priorities Handout provided by ACLU Maryland identified six key issues that the organization will focus on:

  1. Election Day Registration (allow voters to register and vote on the same day)
  2. Pre-Trial Justice (preserve existing judicial rules that disfavors cash bail, prohibits unaffordable bail requirements, and prevents bail from being used for public safety)
  3. Taking the Politics Out of Parole (remove the Governor’s role in the parole determination process)
  4. Solitary Confinement (“Restrictive Housing”) Reform (reform the usage and duration of administrative or disciplinary segregation of inmates and mentally ill detainees)
  5. Criminal Justice Reporting (create a task force, including local government representation, that would standardize how race and ethnicity is reported in public safety situations)
  6. Public Funding of Private and Religious Schools (restrict the use of public monies for funding private schools)

The sheet listed a number of secondary issues, such as access to justice and transparency, where the ACLU of Maryland will be active during the 2018 Session. The ACLU of Maryland will certainly take a position on MACo’s Public Information Act (PIA) reform initiative. The group opposed MACo’s PIA body camera initiative in 2016 and 2017 but has worked with MACo on other issues.

ACLU Maryland 2018 Session Priorities Handout

ACLU of Maryland Website

Conduit Street Podcast, Episode #5 – The Power of Partnership

MACo’s Winter Conference will focus on intergovernmental cooperation and ways that counties can partner with entities in the public and private sector to achieve the best results for Maryland’s residents. Sessions will highlight collaboration across county lines and service areas to address priorities like the opioid epidemic, Next Gen 9-1-1, and the environment, along with other important topics like mutual aid agreements and cooperative purchasing.

On the latest episode of the Conduit Street Podcast, Kevin Kinnally and Michael Sanderson discuss the MACo Winter Conference and its focus on reviewing timely issues that will be relevant during the upcoming Maryland General Assembly Session.

MACo has made the podcast available through both iTunes and Google Play by searching Conduit Street Podcast. You can also listen on our Conduit Street blog with a recap and link to the podcast.

Listen here:

Learn more about MACo’s 2017 Winter Conference:

Auditors, Inspectors General Receiving Less Love In State Budgets

States have significantly fewer auditors and inspectors general on payrolls than before the Great Recession, reports Governing

Governing identified an aggregate decline in filled staff positions reported by the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers of 7 percent over the decade ending in fiscal 2017. Thirty of 47 agencies reported that their staff was smaller than in 2007.

Those left have seen their budgets dwindle. From their coverage:

At a time when governments are trying to get a better grip on their finances, many states have cut funds for auditing and oversight. Such positions were sometimes among the first casualties in the aftermath of the recession. “I find it interesting that there is this nationwide trend of cutting back on the independent watchdog’s budget,” says Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. “I’ve yet to find a taxpayer or a legislator who doesn’t want less waste, fraud and abuse in state government.”

Closer to home, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs just wrote WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld a letter suggesting that “the transit agency’s inspector general lacks the necessary independence to perform its oversight duties and keep the public informed of the results,” according to The Washington PostThe Committee requests a briefing from Wiedefeld on how the authority “oversees its own overseer.”

Delegate Marc Korman from Montgomery County tweeted thoughts on funding for WMATA’s inspector general:

Baltimore Sun Editorial Challenges Needs for Body Camera Privacy Legislation

A Baltimore Sun article (2017-10-09) reported that two Baltimore County Council Members, Todd Crandell and Wade Kach, have introduced a resolution urging the Maryland General Assembly to consider a statewide policy to clarify when the public should have police body camera video footage under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA). The resolution calls for protecting individual privacy rights while maintaining law enforcement transparency. As previously reported on Conduit Street, the County recently announced the adoption of body cameras for 1,400 of its police officers. The resolution proposal follows that announcement.

The article noted that State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger planned to testify in support of the resolution while the ACLU of Maryland opposed the measure. From the article:

“This is simply about a layer of protection for innocent victims and bystanders for their privacy,” said Councilman Todd Crandell of Dundalk, who is sponsoring the measure with Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville. …

American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Rocah called the resolution “unnecessary and deeply misguided.” …

Crandell said the resolution was inspired not by any specific incident, but by a constituent concern about privacy. The concern, he said, is that police are often called to people’s homes, and “anybody who wants to request that footage can then see inside of your home.”

A Baltimore Sun editorial (2017-10-09) followed up on the article expressing the Sun’s opposition to the resolution and statewide legislation. While the Sun acknowledged the various concerns raised by stakeholders, the Sun argued that such legislation was “hypothetical” and unnecessary:

Proponents of new limits on the public release of police body camera video come at the issue from a variety of perspectives. Some are concerned that video showing victims of alleged domestic or sexual assault could become public, thus leading to stigmatization of those who are already vulnerable. Others worry that videos could show embarrassing or private details of one’s home — footage of dirty dishes in the sink, or a homeowner’s collection of firearms, as some legislators mused during hearings on the topic this year. And representatives of local governments in particular are worried that they will be slammed with overly broad requests for video that will prove expensive and time consuming. …

 

Useful Links

Conduit Street Article on Baltimore County Body Camera Adoption

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Body Cameras

MACo’s Winter Conference, The Power of Partnership, on December 6-8, 2017 will have two sessions focusing on the Public Information Act. The Academy for Excellence’s Core Course, Public Information Act, is an excellent overview of the requirements for county governments. The conference closing session, “The Path to Success,” will involve strategic discussions around MACo’s 2018 Initative to modernize the PIA. Read more about both sessions in the Registration Brochure.

Learn more about MACo’s 2017 Winter Conference:

MACo 2018 Initiatives: Infrastructure, Schools, Sunshine, and 9-1-1

Each year MACo adopts a slate of top legislative initiatives, typically representing the wide swath of services counties deliver to Maryland residents. 2018 is no exception, as the MACo initiatives cover education, public safety, public works, and citizen access issues.

Below is the set of top issues for the year ahead, adopted by the Legislative Committee on September 27:

Local Infrastructure Fast Track for Maryland (LIFT4MD)

Investing in infrastructure – a call addressed to every level of government – improves safety, economic development, and quality of life. Nonetheless, funding for local transportation assets, water delivery systems, public safety centers and more all lack predictable centralized funding commitments.

MACo calls on state leaders to take action in 2018 to:

– Approve meaningful new FY 2019 funding for local transportation infrastructure – building on last year’s gains
– Restore the historic 30% local share of transportation revenues – phasing back to the tried-and-true formula in place for decades
– Inventory the condition of local infrastructure across the state, using existing resources – assessing the needs and revenue sources targeted for each area
– Prioritize additional funding for local infrastructure, should the State receive extra infrastructure support from the Federal government

Strong and Smart State Funding for School Construction

The State’s commitment to school construction funding needs to remain strong and smart – to best serve the modern needs of our schoolchildren, educators, and communities. State funding needs to recognize modern cost factors as we achieve new environmental and energy standards, satisfy heightened needs for technology, ensure student safety, fulfill community resource needs, and mesh with evolving teaching methods.

County governments share responsibility for financing K-12 school construction with the State, whose funding depends on statutory formulas and regulations. MACo advocates efforts to promote the smartest and most effective funding for modern schools, and urges State policymakers to retain the State’s strong commitment to this top funding priority. In addition, MACo supports reasonable school construction improvements including alternative financing, public-private partnerships, and innovative models of school construction and design.

Align Public Access Laws with Modern Technologies

Maryland’s Public Information Act creates a balanced framework for guaranteeing public access to open information, while protecting sensitive and private material. The rapid ascension of new technologies has strained the implementation and effect of these laws – potentially chilling their otherwise beneficial use. Maryland should clarify and reframe its Public Information Act to better accommodate citizen electronic engagement, personal surveillance footage from first responders and other county officials, and the release of sensitive personal information.

Advancing Maryland Next-Generation 9-1-1 Systems

Maryland citizens demand and expect 9-1-1 emergency service to be reliable and efficient. Next-generation technology is required to keep up with this increasingly complex public safety function – improving wireless caller location, accommodating incoming text/video, and managing crisis-driven call overflows. Maryland must accelerate its move toward Next Generation 9-1-1, deliver these essential services equitably across the state, and assure effective coordination with communications providers. MACo urges a concerted statewide effort to guide this critical transition, harnessing the expertise and needs of front-line county managers.

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At MACo’s Winter Conference, December 6-8, we will again hold a closing session on “Paths to Success in 2018” detailing means for county officials to get engaged in the fight for each of these top issues. Register today for the conference!

MACo & MML Submit Joint Comments on Public Information Act Concerns

MACo and the Maryland Municipal League (MML) submitted an extensive joint comment letter (2017-09-15) in response to a series of preliminary findings and potential recommendations found in an interim report on the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). The interim report summarized the results of a PIA survey of both record custodians and requestors and offered possible recommendations on: (1) the scope and enforcement authority of the PIA Compliance Board; (2) merging the PIA Compliance Board with the Open Meetings Compliance Board; (3) altering the role of the Public Access Ombudsman; (4) adding further statutory requirements for indigency and fee waiver decisions; (5) requiring third-party governmental contractor records to be disclosable under the PIA; (6) limiting or prohibiting PIA requests for purely commercial purposes; (7) modifying various other aspects of the PIA.

The interim report and a final report due in December of 2017 are required by the sweeping PIA reform legislation passed in 2015 (HB 755/SB 695). Several highlights from the MACo/MML comment letter:

Preliminary Findings

1. The PIA Compliance Board should retain its formal neutrality and the functions of both the Board and Public Access Ombudsman should not be altered.

MACo and MML support the preliminary finding that the PIA Compliance Board should remain formally neutral and that it is too early in the Board’s existence to alter the Board’s jurisdiction or statutory responsibilities. From a local government perspective, the Board must meet two criteria in order to be viewed as credible: (1) the Board maintains an overall neutral position between custodians and requesters; and (2) the Board’s preemptive authority rests within a narrow and well-defined jurisdiction that addresses significant PIA issues. To date, we believe the Board has achieved these goals and further changes would only risk upsetting the Board’s positive perception and ability to function.

MACo and MML also support the role of the Public Access Ombudsman (currently Lisa Kershner) in mediating PIA disputes between custodians and requesters. When there are differences between a custodian and a requester over a PIA issue, a neutral party such as the Ombudsman can help mediate a solution. However, if the Ombudsman is given binding authority, the perception of the Ombudsman shifts from that of an assisting mediator to that of a regulator or judge and the position loses effectiveness in reaching solutions. Instead, the Ombudsman simply becomes the first stop in the litigation process and as such must provide full due process protections. We believe the Ombudsman position is most effective if left in its current form. …

4. Agencies should be provided a level of funding sufficient to centralize responsibility for PIA compliance in one or more employees whose job performance would be evaluated principally on that basis.

MACo and MML support local government compliance with the PIA but are concerned this recommendation fails to account for the dramatic differences in size, capability, and resources of local governments. Such a recommendation would be difficult or impossible for small counties and municipalities to implement. Some smaller counties can only afford to hire a single county attorney to cover every single legal issue the county faces. Many local governments do not even have in-house counsel and use outside counsel as needed. The personnel issue is even more acute for small municipalities whose entire paid staff may encompass one or two people.

Likewise, larger counties and municipalities may have data spread across a wide number of departments and the sheer number of PIA requests may limit the ability to channel those requests through a single or even several employees. Moreover, in a larger jurisdiction, a centralized record custodian may result in another level of separation between the attorneys that respond to requests and the actual government employee that knows where responsive documents are located and has the specialized knowledge about the content of the record that informs the basis for evaluating if an exemption applies.

Local differences are further exacerbated by the fact that different local government types require different organizational structures. In short, local governments are not uniform and funding or organizational mandates regarding PIA requests would be impractical and likely inequitable.

Potential Recommendations

1. Whether the PIA Compliance Board’s jurisdiction should be expanded by lowering the threshold for complaints from $350 to $250 and by giving it jurisdiction over complaints about agency fee waiver decisions.

MACo and MML strongly oppose lowering the PIA Compliance Board’s “unreasonable” fee complaint threshold from $350 to $250 and giving the Board jurisdiction over fee waiver decisions. The complaint threshold was subject to significant debate during the passage of Chapter 135 of 2015 (HB 755/SB 695), which substantially overhauled and revised the PIA. Altering the threshold would upset the policy balance that the legislation established between local autonomy and potential preemption by the Board.

Chapter 135 added greater specificity in how local governments must calculate their fees, minimizing the risk of a fee being “unreasonable” for information requests under $350. The current $350 threshold captures the larger and more complex information requests where there is greater likelihood to be a difference of opinion between the custodian and the requester as to the time, resources, and costs needed to address the request.

Regarding fee waiver decisions, we share the Interim Report’s concerns that the Ombudsman has been successful in mediating fee waiver denials and moving that responsibility to the Board itself would significantly increase the Board’s workload. Such an action would create an unnecessary local government preemption.

5. Whether the PIA should be amended to make the records of all third-party government contractors subject to the Act.

MACo and MML agree with the concerns raised by the Interim Report and do not believe “one size fits all” legislation can adequately address this issue. As the Interim Report correctly states, there are existing mechanisms for gaining some third-party contractor records under the PIA or other law but that the inquiry is often fact-specific, dependent on the existing contracts and software licenses, and not easily addressed by a “bright line” rule. Requiring all contractors to make more information publicly available may also reduce the pool of companies willing to bid on government work and increase the cost the government is charged for those services. At a minimum, further evaluation of this recommendation is needed before any consideration of its adoption.

MACo and MML also offered three additional potential recommendations in the comment letter relating to (1) personal surveillance cameras; (2) email addresses and cell phone numbers used for subscriptions or notifications; and (3) release of social security numbers and dates of birth:

PIA Reform for Personal Surveillance Cameras

While Chapter 135 addressed many longstanding issues with the PIA, several issues have emerged since the passage of Chapter 135 that MACo and MML believe require addressing. Foremost among these is the release of video footage from personal surveillance cameras, which can include body cameras used by first responders or other local government officials and cameras on drones or mobile robots that follow such individuals. MACo has previously developed criteria for when such footage should be released under the PIA in a manner that: (1) maintains local government accountability; (2) protects the privacy rights of vulnerable populations; and (3) addresses local government fiscal and technological concerns. Such a policy is needed to encourage further adoption of these technologies as well as balance valid transparency and privacy interests.

PIA Reform for Email Addresses and Cell Phone Numbers Used For Subscriptions or Notifications

Additionally, there have been recent concerns about PIA requests for email addresses or cell phone numbers of individuals who have signed up to passively receive news, updates, or notifications from a local government. Requests for these email addresses have been driven by commercial or political considerations and could subject individuals, including children and the elderly, to unwanted solicitations and communications, cyber security attacks, and identity theft risks. Allowing PIA disclosure of these email addresses or cell phone numbers serves no useful governmental purpose and could ultimately discourage individuals from subscribing to local government news, notification services, or emergency alerts for fear of being subject to identity theft or cyber security attacks or “spamming.”

PIA Reform for the Release of Social Security Numbers and Dates of Birth

Identity theft has become a major problem globally and two key pieces of data that allow the crime to take place include a person’s social security number and date of birth. Yet both of these pieces of data can be accessed through a PIA request. Providing such information to someone who is not a person of interest serves no public interest or transparency purpose and should be prohibited in light of the significant criminal and financial risks disclosing the information could pose.

Useful Links

Interim Report of the OAG on the Implementation of the PIA (2016-12)

HB 755/ SB 695 of 2015

OAG PIA Webpage

MACo Comments on Ethics, Financial Disclosure Regs

MACo submitted a comment letter (2017-09-15) to the State Ethics Commission on proposed regulation changes to COMAR Title 19A found in the August 4 issue of the Maryland Register. The proposed changes were in response to statutory changes made to Title 5 of the General Provisions Article by the Public Integrity Act of 2017 (HB 879). MACo had no concerns with the majority of the proposed regulations as they were consistent with the new requirements of HB 879 and supported a prohibition on disclosing the home address of a local elected official or employee on financial disclosure forms filed after January 1, 2019. From MACo’s comment letter:

With respect to both state and local governments, the proposed regulations would exclude an exchange-traded fund from being counted as a disclosable “interest” as long as the fund: (1) is publicly traded on a national scale; and (2) is not composed primarily of holdings of stocks and interests in a specific sector or area that is regulated by the individual’s governmental unit. This change conforms to Maryland’s longstanding treatment of ordinary mutual funds and similar composite investment instruments. The proposed regulations also expand the definition of “legislative action” to include testimony or other advocacy in an official capacity as a member of the General Assembly before a unit of state or local government.

The proposed regulations also amend Model Ethics Laws A and B to: (1) add a 1-year “cool down” requirement on specified issues for local elected officials or employees who subsequently become regulated lobbyists and vice versa; (2) expand prohibited conduct by local elected officials or employees under the “prestige of office” sections; (3) specify that a candidate for local office is deemed to have withdrawn the candidacy if the candidate’s financial disclosure statement is overdue and not filed within 8 days; (4) modify the financial disclosure requirements for individuals who have lobbyist spouses; and (5) prohibit public access to a local elected official or employee’s home address on a financial disclosure form filed after January 1, 2019.

MACo believes all of the proposed changes are consistent with HB 879 and has no concerns with the changes. In particular, MACo is supportive of the home address clarification for the financial disclosure forms. While the home address of a local government elected official or employee is protected in other areas of the public ethics laws, the lack of an explicit protection for financial disclosures created a “loophole” that raised both privacy and security concerns.

Useful Links

Maryland Register 2017-08-04 State Ethics Commission Proposed Regulations

HB 879 of 2017 (Public Integrity Act)

State Ethics Commission Website

A Cautionary Tale on Managing Public Comments

A Baltimore Sun article (2017-09-05) offered a cautionary tale on local legislative bodies acknowledging the free speech rights of their citizens while maintaining a reasonable level of decorum and discourse during public hearings. The situation surrounded a series of Anne Arundel County Council meetings where Council Chairman John Grasso sought to manage remarks made by citizens that were critical of fellow Council Member Michael Peroutka.

Initially, Grasso sought to limit citizen comments through the use of council Rule 4-106, which prohibits “personal, defamatory, or profane” remarks. After concerns were raised by the ACLU of Maryland that the rule might violate First Amendment rights, Grasso did not utilize Rule 4-106 but did enforce a 2-minute time limit for each person offering public input. From the article:

 

The ACLU contends that not only was Grasso wrong in keeping the two [members of the public] from speaking, but that sections of [Rule 4-106] are “unconstitutional.”

“None of the remarks that they sought to make were defamatory … so the only possible basis for prohibiting their remarks was that they were ‘personal,’ which you appear to interpret as barring critical commentary on particular individuals, including council members and other public officials,” the ACLU wrote. “Such a rule clearly violates the First Amendment.” …

 

The ACLU wrote in its letter that “courts around the country have repeatedly determined … similar rules that prohibit critical comments about public officials at meetings of public bodies are overbroad and/or content or viewpoint based rules in violation of the First Amendment.”

Grasso responded in the article that he was only trying “to maintain (the) order of the meeting.”

MACo advises that counties should tread carefully regarding the rights of citizens to speak at a public meeting. Members of the public who ignore basic meeting protocols (such as continuously speaking outside of the times allowed for public comments or shouting so that no meeting business can be conducted) can be prohibited from continuing to speak. Likewise, consistently enforcing a time limit that applies to all public speakers is reasonable. However, when it comes to limiting the content of a speaker’s comments, county governments should be cognizant of potential First Amendment infringement, even if the county officials are acting in good faith.

Town of Chevy Chase Ordered to Pay Attorney Fees in Purple Line PIA Request

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.

Useful Links

Court of Special Appeals Holding – ACT v. Town of Chevy Chase

 

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.