When Montgomery Del. Robin Ficker went down to defeat in his reelection bid Tuesday, he left county officials a final rememberance: Voters approved the Republican gadfly's controversial amendment that forces the county government to stop doing business with the C & P Telephone Co., unless residents of Gaithersburg and Montgomery Village are included in the local calling area.
The telephone issue received 54 percent of the vote from across the county. The phone company has already said it will not expand its local calling area, so the legally binding amendment essentially forces the county into a game of chicken with the utility firm.
County officials, who before the election called Ficker's proposal mischievous with little likelihood of passing, yesterday began assessing their options, ranging from a possible court challenge to simply ignoring the measure. They have 30 days before Ficker's amendment takes effect.
County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist yesterday ordered County Attorney Paul McGuckian and county lobbyist Blair Lee IV to review the amendment's potential impact on the county.
"If an amendment passes, we have to assume it's valid until a court says it's not," McGuckian said. "We can't just ignore it."
McGuckian also raised the possibility that the amendment is technically flawed, since it refers to "The C & P Telephone Co." The correct name of the Maryland utility is "The C & P Telephone Co. of Maryland."
County officials thought before the election that although the amendment was likely to pass in the northern part of the county, it would be roundly defeated by residents of Silver Spring, Bethesda and Chevy Chase, who wouldn't want to see their phone rates go up to subsidize residents upcounty.
In fact, the county attorney was even prepared to challenge the phone issue in court before the election, but he said he was busy mounting a court challenge to another Ficker charter amendment, one that would have forced the county to give up its liquor business monopoly.
The telephone company has consistently opposed any expansion of its metropolitan calling area, which now includes the District, the Northern Virginia suburbs, all of Prince George's County and Montgomery County up to and including Rockville. That calling area has not been expanded for more than a decade, and expansion would cost $3 million in new wiring and equipment, according to Web Chamberlin, district staff manager in C & P's public relations department.
Chamberlin said Montgomery Village and Gaithersburg residents now can make local calls to the District, the rest of lower Montgomery County, and parts of Prince George's. The only areas for which they must pay long distance rates are Northern Virginia, Upper Marlboro, and parts of Prince George's outside the beltway.
He said phone company studies have found "the general customer out there really doesn't have an interest in calling those areas not now included in the local calling area."
Also, the upcounty callers can pay an additional monthly charge and be included in the total metropolitan calling area.
The Public Service Commission heard Ficker argue the case last year, and decided that including the upcounty in the local calling area wasn't worth the expense, which would have to be passed on to consumers statewide.
Despite the unexpected success of the phone amendment, Ficker himself lost, with 13,807 votes. The third-place finisher for the district's three seats, Jerry Hyatt, received 14,347 votes. Ficker says he was a victim of the Democratic party's countywide rout, and being abandoned by the Republican party, which considered the maverick Ficker an embarrassment.
Ficker, who has sponsored eight ballot amendments since 1970 and has become known as a champion signature-gatherer, also blamed his defeat partly on Republican voters, who "bullet voted" GOP candidate Jean Roesser. That is, in key GOP precincts, Republicans voted for Roesser and no one else, in a conscious attempt to get rid of Ficker.
"If the Republicans had worked together in this campaign, which we didn't, I think we could have won two delegate seats," Ficker said. He also accused some GOP precinct workers of not marking his name on sample ballots handed out at polling places.
Ficker became a victim of his own reputation as a gadfly and a publicity-seeker, said state GOP chairman Allan C. Levey, who lost in his bid for a 15th District senate seat. "I think Robin Ficker finally caught up with himself," Levey said.
Ficker, a lawyer from West Bethesda, said he will now do "an about-face" and retire from public life entirely. He said he will not even defend his phone rate amendment, if it is indeed challenged in court.