New Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Al Lang on Wednesday pleaded for compromise and neighborliness in the wake of the secret write-in campaign that turned a small town election into an ugly series of leaked emails, nasty listserv posts and lawsuit threats.
Lang’s request survived for about two minutes before residents, other members of the Town Council and the man blamed for orchestrating the write-in campaign rehashed the details in front of about 50 residents at a council meeting.
“It still bothers me. Why wouldn’t the people with grievances run an open campaign to challenge the status quo and offer new ideas,” council member Vicky Taplin said. “They must believe their campaign wouldn’t win.”
Taplin and council member Kathy Strom were aligned with Pat Burda, the vice mayor who thought she was running unopposed for reelection until about an hour before the polls closed May 5.
It was only then, when write-in candidate Fred Cecere submitted a financial disclosure document required of official candidates, that she and many others became aware of the stealth write-in effort conducted by email to get Cecere to replace her on the five-member council.
“It is upsetting to me and many in the community that many who organized the stealth campaign were unwilling to have a discussion on the record for the entire community to be part of,” Strom said Wednesday. “The claim made that they favor transparency rings hollow.”
Ed Albert and other residents organized the write-in campaign and intentionally kept it under wraps so as not to alert Burda and her supporters.
Albert said the group who powered the write-in effort was unhappy with the council’s spending on its Purple Line lobbying deal, its request for one portable classroom instead of two at a local elementary school and what the group perceived as unnecessarily stringent regulations on tree removal and building codes.
The write-in supporters identified Burda, Strom and other veteran town leaders as behind those moves.
Strom also chastised Albert for calling her Sunday night and threatening to sue if Cecere wasn’t put on the council.
“This is not the way we should behave in a small community like ours,” Strom said, “and it offends me.”
Albert then stood up and addressed the meeting, claiming he decided against running for council himself because “it’s a nightmare job.”
He defended the write-in campaign, but didn’t directly address the secretive nature of it.
“The question this council and the former council should be asking: Why was it so easy to get 168 people [to vote for Cecere]? I’ll tell you, if we had more time that number would be a lot bigger,” Albert said. “A lot bigger, probably triple.”
That elicited groans from the Burda supporters in the audience.
Albert walked out of the meeting as soon as he finished speaking. A handful of other residents then asked the council to consider a recall election or at least an examination of the town’s write-in and candidate financial disclosure rules.
One resident half-jokingly envisioned future elections with no declared candidates and a battle of secret write-in campaigns waged via email.
Taplin took her criticisms of the write-in campaign one step further, asking Lang and council member John Bickerman to answer allegations that they were involved in Cecere’s write-in campaign.
Both have denied they were, though Bickerman spoke for 20 minutes in support of Cecere at Monday’s Ethics Commission hearing that cleared the way for the election results to be confirmed.
Lang and Bickerman, who came in first in the election, often differed with Burda, Strom and Taplin on town issues. When last year’s council was installed, Lang lost a vote that would have made him the town’s treasurer. Taplin was named town treasurer instead.
On Wednesday, immediately after Cecere and Bickerman were sworn in, the duo joined with Lang, voting in favor of Lang becoming mayor.
The three also voted for Bickerman as vice mayor and Cecere as treasurer. Taplin, who was named secretary, abstained from the votes. Strom, who was named community liaison, voted against the three men.
She didn’t explain why.
Lang, Strom and Taplin will be up for reelection in May 2016.