MCGEO Gets Ready to Rumble

By Adam Pagnucco.

On Monday night, July 11, some MoCo residents received the following robocall.

I’m Tara Huber. I live in Montgomery County and I’m a county worker in child protective services. My job is to protect the vulnerable children in the county and can be very stressful. My job is made even more stressful by the fact that the County under the leadership of Council President Nancy Floreen has failed time and again to give me and my co-workers the right tools to effectively do our jobs. Floreen has mismanaged the county budget to such an extreme that we don’t have enough staff or tools to manage the high case loads. Protect your Montgomery. Call President Floreen at 240-777-7959 and tell her you expect better management of our tax dollars. Paid for by UFCW Local 1994, 600 South Frederick Avenue Gaithersburg Maryland 20877.

This is a new shot fired by MCGEO, the county employee union, in its on-again, off-again conflict with the County Council.  But it’s a risky one that could backfire.

First, some background.  MCGEO has a number of problems with the council, including:

  1. The council’s trimming of employee benefits during the Great Recession.
  1. The council’s vote to end effects bargaining for the police union, which was later upheld by voters.
  1. The council’s vote to cut MCGEO’s raise in half as part of its recently passed budget.
  1. The introduction of legislation by Council President Nancy Floreen that would change collective bargaining procedures in ways that the union claims would weaken its ability to negotiate.

These events and more have caused MCGEO President Gino Renne to tell the Post that his union might support Robin Ficker’s term limits amendment.  And on the night before the hearing on Floreen’s collective bargaining bill, the above robocall went out.  None of this is a coincidence.  Indeed, the union is gearing up for battle.  And no one, whether friend or foe of MCGEO and its fearsome President, has ever claimed that the union backs down when it is under threat.

The problem is that the robocall has little merit and such tactics may provoke the council to do even more against the union’s interest.

Montgomery County has a gigantic Health and Human Services (HHS) budget.  In FY16, HHS had an approved budget of $289 million, with 1,359 full-time positions and 327 part-time positions.  Children, Youth and Family Services, for which the robocall speaker (a MCGEO Vice-President) works, had an FY16 approved budget of $79 million with 525 full-time equivalent positions.

Using FY09 data, your author found that Montgomery County had the biggest HHS budget (along with housing) of any local jurisdiction in Maryland.  On a per capita basis, MoCo spent more than double the state average and lagged only the City of Baltimore.  MoCo spent more than 8 times on HHS and housing than did Prince George’s County.  From FY10 (the peak year prior to the recession) through FY16, MoCo’s HHS budget grew by 13%.  And as for the County Council specifically, it adds millions of dollars on top of the Executive’s recommended budget for HHS every year.  Below is a list of the HHS items added by the council to the Executive’s budget this year, financed with a nine percent increase in property taxes.

HHS Rec List FY17

It’s hard to argue that the council pinches pennies on HHS.  MCGEO has pooh-poohed the tax hike on its website.  What would the union like to see?  Does the council need to raise property taxes by 20% to get its approval?

There is more.  MCGEO is considering supporting term limits for county elected officials.  Fair enough.  The union has some legitimate grievances and any union would fight against a breaking of its collective bargaining agreement.  But let’s remember that the collective bargaining bill detested by MCGEO only had two sponsors at introduction, Nancy Floreen and Craig Rice.  That doesn’t speak well of the bill’s chances under normal circumstances.  But if MCGEO amps up its tactics and really does come out for term limits, could it actually help to recruit votes for Floreen’s bill?  After all, what do term-limited Council Members have to lose?  And let’s not forget that this council will decide on funding two more MCGEO annual compensation packages before the next council is seated.

In May 2011, when the County Council met to pass a budget that included cuts to employee benefits, a group of nine clowns appeared in the audience.  One of them wore a name tag with the first name of the Council President.  The police union refused to admit responsibility but was widely blamed.  Less than two months later, the council voted unanimously to repeal the police union’s right to bargain the effects of management decisions.

What goes around comes around.  Is MCGEO next?


Anyone But Robin Ficker

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post’s legendary editorial from 1988 says it all: Anyone But Robin Ficker.  The only problem with it is that it’s nearly thirty years old.  And the scourge of Montgomery County has been plenty busy since then!

Robin Ficker is well known to elected officials and veteran activists because of his forty-year rampage through the county.  But for those who have not yet encountered him, or have been exposed to him only through his most recent attempt to pass term limits, here are Four Facts about the man local politicians hate the most.

He is a World-Class Heckler

If there is ever a Heckler Hall of Fame, Robin Ficker would be a charter member.  He has all the tools of heckling: a booming voice, boundless energy, a rapacious hunger for attention of any kind and absolutely no fear.  For many years, he was indisputably the Number One heckler in the NBA, harassing opponents of his beloved Washington Bullets from directly behind their bench.  Ficker once explained the key to his heckling technique to ESPN.

It’s important to really read up on the opposing team and follow the game very closely, so that you’re conversant with the psychological weaknesses of the other team,” advises Robin Ficker, the Bethesda-based attorney who was once the NBA’s preeminent heckler.

Ficker never cursed at players or used sexual or racial insults, but he was still massively disruptive.  He read passages of tell-all sports books to players and coaches, making sure to focus on the inflammatory parts covering them.  His use of props and bullhorns caused some players to use ear plugs and provoked the Golden State Warriors to throw towels and Gatorade at him.  Legendary former Boston Celtics boss Red Auerbach called Ficker “a disgrace” and urged the Bullets’ owner to revoke his tickets.  The NBA passed a rule to forbid fans from heckling teams during timeouts, taking away one of Ficker’s greatest weapons.  And in an unholy alliance, former Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley even flew Ficker out to a playoff game to heckle the Chicago Bulls.  Ficker gave up his season tickets in 1997 after his seat was moved away from the court, but he continues to heckle at University of Maryland wrestling matches.

Ficker shows off his heckling skills.

He Runs for Everything, All the Time

Ficker has been continually running for office for more than 40 years.  The list of offices is nearly endless: U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Maryland Senate and House, MoCo Executive, County Council and school board.  (Does anyone know if Ficker has run for President?)  He once considered running for Governor and sought out a running mate through a classified ad that said, “Prefer female who is tax-cutting Republican, ambitious, intelligent, fearless, adventurous, hardworking and young (age 30 by 01/07) with flexible schedule to traverse Maryland.”

Ficker’s only win was his 1978 election to the House of Delegates, which was reversed four years later.  He did run for Congress once in the meantime, a race that saw him fighting with a female debate moderator for a microphone.

His campaign style is sadly familiar to wincing voters: thousands of illegal signs placed in public rights-of-way and self-funded illegal mailers lacking authority lines.  District residency requirements mean little to him.  Former Gazette columnist Blair Lee wrote in 2008, “In one election, he circumvented the ban against posting his orange ‘My Friend Ficker’ election signs on utility poles by hanging them 20 feet high on every other pole. We’re talking about a guy who, in the dead of night, climbs hundreds and hundreds of utility poles nailing up his lawn signs.”

Ficker’s electoral taint applies not only to himself, but to others.  The Post once reported that “he started a write-in campaign for Edward M. Kennedy in New Hampshire in 1972 only to learn his funding had come from the Nixon White House, which wanted to discredit Edmund Muskie, then considered a threat to Nixon.”

Ficker shows off his debating skills.

Ficker is equally prolific at placing charter amendments on the ballot.  Most of them deal with tax restrictions, but he has put term limits on the ballot at least twice before.  Ficker excels at this because he has the energy necessary to gather signatures at every conceivable public venue, and in a county of one million, ten thousand people can be found to support almost anything.  After decades of anti-tax failures, Ficker succeeded in passing a unanimous, nine-vote requirement on the County Council to break the county’s charter limit on property taxes in 2008.  The council met that hurdle in approving a nine percent property tax hike this year, giving new momentum to Ficker’s current term limits ballot drive.

His One Term in the House of Delegates was an Epic Disaster

Early in his political career, Ficker actually got elected to the House of Delegates as a Republican from District 15.  Annapolis quickly regretted it.  His colleagues said, “they have never met anyone who lives for publicity the way Ficker does.”  His “long, protracted questions, sometimes about the most minor issues” provoked “a considerable amount of exasperation at times.”  The Post noted that his “gadfly politics and long speeches often emptied the House chamber in Annapolis.”  Speaker Ben Cardin said this of Ficker: “I would be glad to make a contribution to Robin’s campaign… As long as he runs for the Senate or Congress or anything but the House of Delegates, I stand ready to help.”  Possibly his only meaningful accomplishment was to help kill D.C. voting rights.

Ficker’s name on a bill was regarded as the kiss of death.  Even his support could kill a bill.  One lawmaker moaned, “The bill is dead…. I mean, if I had a bill I wanted killed the first thing I’d do is persuade Robin Ficker to speak for it.”  On another occasion, a Delegate begged Ficker not to speak on behalf of his bill.  Ficker did it anyway.  The Delegate retaliated by breaking his microphone.

There were many stories about Ficker during his four years in the statehouse.  Here is one from the Post.

Ficker shares a suite of offices with fellow Montgomery Republicans Constance A. Morella and [Luiz] Simmons. When the three moved in, Morella’s name, as the top vote-getter, was on top. Ficker switched the names. Somebody switched them back (Morella says she knows nothing about the incident.) Ficker switched them again. When they were switched one more time, Ficker had the final word–he bought a tube of Krazy Glue and glued his nameplate in on top.

Ficker was unperturbed by his notoriety.  “At least I know I’m noticed. There are a lot of people in Annapolis who would like some recognition.”

Ficker was defeated in 1982 by Democrat Gene Counihan, much to the relief of Annapolis.  To this day, Counihan proudly embraces the nickname he was given by his grateful colleagues:

The Ficker Kicker.

Ficker running for Montgomery County Council in 2009.

Ficker 2009 sign

He is Frequently in Trouble

Ficker has been in trouble repeatedly ever since he was expelled from West Point in 1963, in part for “speaking abusively to hospital personnel while being treated for a broken leg.”

It’s hard to track all the Ficker Incidents.  Most of them have to do with his misconduct as an attorney.  Should we begin with 1988, when Maryland’s Attorney Grievance Commission accused Ficker of an ethics violation for advertising his expertise in palimony suits even though the state does not allow palimony?  (He was later cleared, but a judge said the ads were in “bad taste.”)  Or how about 1990, when the Court of Appeals reprimanded him for failing to show up at the trials of two clients?  In 1995, the Attorney Grievance Commission slammed him when he “allegedly left clients stranded without representation in court and in one case sent a novice lawyer who was unfamiliar with the case into the courtroom.”  There is also Ficker’s 1996 conviction of battery and malicious destruction of property in connection with a traffic accident involving a pregnant woman.  The woman testified that Ficker “exploded in anger,” “was out of control,” and broke her sunglasses after he bumped her car and she tried to get contact information from him.  After Ficker appealed, he was acquitted of destruction of property and the battery charge was dropped.

Ficker’s law license was suspended in 1998 and 2007 for violations of competence and diligence.  Here’s what the Court of Appeals wrote after the second suspension.

As we observed initially, this is the fifth time that Ficker has run afoul of his obligation to manage his office in a proper manner. He was warned twice by this Court, in 1990 and in 1998, and, despite his claimed improvements, seems not to have learned enough from those warnings. As the result of his cavalier attention to proper office management (1) one client (Robertshaw), facing incarceration, was virtually abandoned until the eve of trial and then was represented by an associate who had not read the entire file, who was unaware that his client had two prior convictions, and who first presented the available options to her in the lobby of the courthouse on the day of trial, (2) another client (Paulk), facing criminal charges that could have resulted in incarceration, was abandoned on what she assumed would be a trial date and which, only by fortuitous circumstance unknown to her or Ficker, had been limited to an advice of rights proceeding, and (3) a third client (Ponto) ended up having an arrest warrant issued against him. We see in these violations an inexcusable lack of concern on Ficker’s part for the welfare of his clients, an unwillingness, after four warnings, to make the necessary improvements to his office management. Accordingly, we believe that the appropriate sanction is an indefinite suspension from the practice of law, with the right to reapply for admission no earlier than one year from the effective date of the suspension.

Would you want to be represented by this man?

A Ficker mailer from his recent campaign in Congressional District 6.

Ficker Trump Cruz

So given all of the above, why did Ficker’s anti-tax charter amendment pass in 2008, and why is his latest term limits amendment favored to pass?  The answer is that MoCo’s elected leaders overreach, especially on the issue of raising taxes.  By and large, the county’s electorate appreciates the role of government in solving problems and maintaining a high quality of life.  But county leaders have approved six major tax increases in the last fifteen fiscal years and voters are getting tired of it.  That’s why they voted to limit property tax hikes in 2008, and the County Council responded with a nine-percent increase this year.  It’s almost impossible to give someone like Ficker the political high ground, but that’s what has happened.  And it appears that elected officials will pay the price.

But as for Robin Ficker himself?  The voters have made their decision on his many runs for office over the course of decades, and it’s not going to change now:

Anyone But Robin Ficker.