The Joint Committee of the Town Election Board and Ethics Commission on the 2015 Election in the Town of Chevy Chase has released its report. It contains devastating criticism of Mayor Al Lang and Vice Mayor John Bickerman’s conduct. As Mayor Lang has not so far posted the Report to the Town website, I have excerpted portions of the report below, which is now available in full at Bethesda Beat:
Lang and Bickerman Violated Fiduciary Responsibility
The Joint Committee concludes that
- both Mr. Lang and Mr. Bickerman knew that the Town government had informed the voters that the election was “uncontested”;
- both Mr. Lang and Mr. Bickerman knew before the election about the stealth write-in campaign in support of Dr. Cecere, and therefore that the election was in fact contested;
- neither Mr. Lang nor Mr. Bickerman took actions to correct the record and inform Town voters in general that the election was in fact contested.
Residents of the Town have contended in hearings before the Joint Committee that Town Council members have at least a fiduciary, if not a legal, responsibility to accurately inform residents about facts pertinent to the government of the Town. Mr. Bickerman has at times denied such a fiduciary responsibility. Yet it would seem unlikely that he or any Council member would argue that he/she is at liberty to allow a materially misleading statement made to the public at large about the finances of the Town to remain unchallenged or uncorrected on the public record if the Council member knew the information to be untrue. Surely the duty to correct misleading statements relating to elections that determine the governance of the Town is as great as the duty to correct misstatements about the Town’s finances.
As for a specific legal basis for arguing that a Council member has a fiduciary responsibility to the Town public, Article 6 of the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights states that “all persons invested with the Legislative or Executive powers of Government are the Trustees of the Public, and, as such, accountable for their conduct.” Since the Town of Chevy Chase is chartered under the Constitution and laws of Maryland, that applies to Town councilmembers. Indeed, the Oath of Office for Council members says, in part, “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the State of Maryland, and support the Constitution and Laws thereof…” And the concept of being a “Trustee” of the “Public” is at its heart a statement that government officials have a fiduciary responsibility with regard to the public.
Undermined Legitimacy and Efficacy of Town Actions
Another aspect of the stealth campaign that related to the nature of Town politics is why, given the range of complaints and criticisms of the incumbent Town government, the supporters of the stealth campaign did not go to the electorate openly and seek a change in the composition of the Council? A traditional view would hold that this is what elections are meant to be about—a robust exchange of views and visions leading to a democratic choice that shows the preferences of a majority of the electorate. Failing to take that open route and to participate in the traditional public campaign process has cast doubt on the motivations of those involved in the stealth campaign by many Town voters who feel as if they were misled about the contested nature of the election, and has obscured, in the eyes of many Town citizens, whatever electoral mandate the victors sought or believe themselves to have won.
And our neighboring communities, such as those in the coalitions our Town Council earlier played a key role in organizing to constrain overdevelopment in Bethesda, need to know that they were dealing with trustworthy partners. It is important to consider whether the stealth write-in campaign may suggest to Town citizens that they should be wary and skeptical of their neighbors, or whether it may have suggested to our neighboring communities in Montgomery County and the Greater Washington region.
Call for Further Investigation and Even Legal Action
If Mayor Lang and Vice Mayor Bickerman continue to refuse to respond to the June 5 letter of inquiry, the Joint Committee requests that the Town Council assess the legal basis for the refusal and consider whether responses should be compelled through legal process or other means. Also, Mayor Lang and Vice Mayor Bickerman should be reminded of the responsibility to preserve all records—including electronic communications on office and personal devices and accounts—that may be relevant to further inquiry or legal action.
“We believe that Council Members Lang and Bickerman should provide members of our Town with complete details of their involvement in the stealth campaign. Otherwise, it is likely that the obvious mistrust and anger toward them will continue, and likely frustrate the important work of the Council. Only by providing this information to the electorate can the Town begin to heal.”
UPDATE: The Town has now posted the report on the Town website in the wake of its appearance on Bethesda Beat.