ROCKVILLE — Attorney, activist, and perennial candidate Robin Ficker said he was barred from speaking at last week’s County Council public hearing because he is running for County Executive as a Republican even though he admits that he was going to attack the Council instead of testifying about the bill under debate.
“It’s personal. It’s not Robin Ficker-personal; it’s the fact that I’m the only Republican running County-wide,” Ficker said. “They didn’t want to hear what I had to say and they didn’t want me to get any publicity from testifying before the Council.”
Ficker said he signed up to testify before last week’s impromptu County Council meeting, but was not included on the list of witnesses for the hearing, which was meant to quickly to introduce and pass a bill that allowed residents to pay their taxes early in hopes to avoid a projected tax increase from changes in federal taxes.
Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large) said members from his staff picked the people who testified at the meeting based upon the analysis of the bill they gave in their requests to speak at the public hearing.
“We wanted people who had some content, and Mr. Ficker expressed none,” Riemer said. “Those who were here had written us extensive emails, you know, even providing a thorough analysis of the issue, so we felt that they would be constructive and helpful.”
Ficker said he previously thought that those who spoke at the public hearing came on a first come, first serve basis. But Council Administrator Steve Farber explained that that is not the case, as Council staff is permitted to vet potential speakers and select them based on what they might say to ensure an ideological balance of persons in favor and against a given bill.
“Ordinarily what we try to do is ensure there is balance and in this instance, all the people who requested to speak were supportive of the bill,” Farber said.
Ficker admitted that like the seven people who spoke at the Dec. 26 public hearing, he would have spoken in favor of the bill, but said he wanted to use his time at the microphone to attack the Council’s tax policies which make early filing a necessity.
The process leading up to the last-minute Council meeting on Dec. 26 was unusual. Despite being on a holiday recess, they quickly convened for a previously unplanned meeting to introduce and vote on an expedited bill that to allow people to file their taxes before the beginning of the New Year to be able to deduct their property taxes from their federal taxes. The bill was necessary because the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – which was Congressional Republicans and President Trump moved through Congress without any Democratic support – eliminates taxpayers’ ability to deduct their state and local taxes from their federal taxable income.
The President and most Republicans claim that eliminating the deduction amounts to a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans and will encourage states to lower unnecessarily high taxes. Democrats and some Republicans – mostly from coastal states with higher taxes – say the change amounts to an attempt by the President to punish voters living in states that he failed to carry in the 2016 election.
The Council released a public notice of the Dec. 26 meeting three days before, which notified those who wish to testify that they should send their request directly to Hans Riemer’s County email address, with a note saying “sending a request to testify does not guarantee a slot on the Council’s speaker list.”
After receiving notice of the meeting on Dec. 23, Ficker sent an email requesting a slot to speak at 10:34 p.m. that evening. He then received a reply from Ken Silverman – Riemer’s chief of staff – that no open speaking slots remained.
“Thank you for your email. Unfortunately, the hearing tomorrow is full. If there is a cancellation I’ll be glad to let you know,” Silverman wrote in an email to Ficker on Dec. 25.
While Ficker said Council staff denied him the opportunity to speak in part because he is a Republican candidate for County office, Reimer offered the fact that one of the speakers who received a slot was Montgomery County Young Republicans Vice President Dan McHugh as proof that the decision was not partisan. But McHugh said he was unable to speak at the public hearing because he was in Delaware that evening, and while he requested Ficker replace him on the list of speakers, Ficker was still not allowed to speak.
During Council hearings during the day, the number of witnesses testifying can range from zero to a few panels of five to seven speakers each. When debating bills and zoning text amendments, during which, many people would like to speak, the Council will often hold evening hearings which can provide sufficient time to allow more than 100 people to testify.
But even when members of the public can ask to speak, it is not an absolute right.
“Just because you request does not mean you we will be accepted,” Reimer said.