Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ficker presence at County Council interview causes stir

Planning Board applicant told he was in ‘bad form’

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Montgomery County Councilman George L. Leventhal tried to have activist Robin Ficker expelled from a conference room where the council was interviewing applicants Thursday for the vacant Democratic seat on the Planning Board.

Ficker — who is seeking a seat for a non-Democrat on the Planning Board — protested that the council could not discriminate who could and who could not attend meetings where public access is mandated by law. Plus, Ficker said, he had been told he could stay.

Leventhal told Ficker it was ‘‘bad form [and] in bad taste” for an applicant to listen to other candidates’ interviews.

The policy of having only one candidate in the room during interviews was intended to keep candidates from gaining an advantage by getting the council’s questions or competitors’ answers before their own interviews, said Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park and Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.

Council clerk Linda Lauer said she did tell Ficker he could stay, although it is the council’s custom to ask applicants not to attend other applicants’ interviews.

‘‘People usually respect that it’s our custom ... [but it] wasn’t a closed meeting,” Lauer said Monday. ‘‘When you get down to open meetings law and council practice, open meetings law takes precedence.”

Ficker has launched several unsuccessful efforts to limit the council’s ability to raise property taxes.

The contretemps between Ficker and Leventhal came about halfway through a three-hour session in which the council queried six Democratic candidates.

Ficker, again a Republican after running for county executive as an independent in 2006, said he took a seat in the conference room early before council members arrived.

Leventhal, who was seated with his back to Ficker, told The Gazette on Monday that he spoke up as soon as he noticed Ficker was in the room.

Ficker stood up during their exchange, but did not approach Leventhal, who told him Ficker that if he was withdrawing his application he was ‘‘welcome” to stay.

Ficker did not agree and Leventhal asked that a security officer be summoned, saying he felt his security was threatened.

By the time the officer arrived, Leventhal said: ‘‘If Mr. Ficker will promise to behave himself, we’re in fine shape.”

In an interview Monday, Leventhal said what he meant was that he felt the security of the meeting was threatened, not that Ficker would harm him personally.

‘‘He quieted down and did not have to be removed,” Leventhal said.

Ficker sent an electronic mail message to council members over the weekend urging them to consider and interview him for the Planning Board seat and detailing what he recalled from the dispute, including ‘‘Councilmember Knapp’s assertion ... that my Republican application should be disqualified because I attended these interviews.”

‘‘The whole thing was pretty convoluted,” Knapp said Monday, regarding the meeting, which was taped.

‘‘In fairness, I probably should have said in the beginning: ‘Robin, you shouldn’t be here if you still want to be considered as an applicant,’” Knapp said.

Asked if the council policy was at odds with the open meetings act, Knapp said he did not see a conflict.

Council members making the selection could consider the judgment and fairness of a candidate who insisted on sitting in on others’ interviews, he said.

The council is scheduled to interview an independent, two Republicans and two Democrats between 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday and one Democrat on Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.