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Loudoun board rejects OpenBand agreement

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The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors ended a lengthy and highly charged debate Wednesday with a vote to deny renewing a controversial franchise agreement between the county and cable telecommunications provider OpenBand.

The long-anticipated vote followed years of complaints about the company’s service from residents of several eastern Loudoun communities, including Southern Walk at Broadlands, Lansdowne on the Potomac, Lansdowne Village Green and parts of Leisure World.

The complaints escalated this year, as county leaders examined the possibility of renewing the agreement with the Dulles-based company, a prospect complicated by a tense negotiation process and two federal lawsuits filed against OpenBand by homeowners associations in Ashburn.

The lawsuits alleged that exclusive property easements established in contracts between OpenBand and the communities’ developers essentially created a monopoly, making it impossible for competing cable companies to provide service to the neighborhoods.

The 8 to 1 vote was preceded by a closed session between county officials and County Attorney John Roberts. Several members of the board had expressed concern about the legal and logistical implications of denying the agreement, and the panel postponed taking action on the matter last month until county staff could address the issues.

There was little discussion before the vote Wednesday, although before casting the only dissenting vote, Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) repeated his position that the franchise should get more consideration.

“Some of us vote no, sometimes, and we’re all alone. I feel like that today,” Delgaudio said. “I’m going to have to take my stand. . . . I think we should continue the negotiations.”

Delgaudio, along with other Republican candidates in this year’s Board of Supervisors races — including Matt Letourneau (Dulles), Janet Clarke (Blue Ridge) and Ralph Buona (Ashburn) — has come under fire from residents and county officials for accepting sizable campaign donations from OpenBand’s parent company, M.C. Dean.

Campaign records show that Delgaudio accepted a $2,500 donation from M.C. Dean on Oct. 26 and that the donation was followed two days later by an additional $5,000 contribution from the company.

In an e-mail, Delgaudio said that he has 111 other donors, to whom he promises that he will work for election victory.

“That is all I promise,” he said.

Erika Hodell-Cotti, president of the Southern Walk Homeowners Association — which filed one of the two federal lawsuits against OpenBand in August — said her community was pleased with the outcome of the vote but remains concerned by the mounting campaign donations to local candidates from M.C. Dean.

“I think the Board of Supervisors really did use their sound judgment, based on the voluminous amount of public input and their own interactions with OpenBand,” Hodell-Cotti said. “The denial is really OpenBand’s doing. They could have negotiated with their customers; they could have negotiated with the Board of Supervisors. Instead, they decided to infuse tens of thousands of dollars into the election.”

More than $35,000 in contributions have been made from M.C. Dean and its executives to candidates vying for seats on the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, according to Virginia Public Access Project records. Tens of thousands more have gone to General Assembly candidates and to political action committees, records show.

OpenBand expressed disappointment at the board’s rejection of the franchise agreement in a statement Wednesday.

“For two years, OpenBand has negotiated in good faith and has acquiesced to virtually every request made by Loudoun County, including service expansions, system upgrades and enhanced penalties for the failure to perform,” the statement said. “The public record in support of approving OpenBand’s franchise agreement is overwhelming. . . . The County’s own research confirmed that OpenBand offers the least expensive cable service in the County and receives fewer trouble tickets per customer than Verizon. Simply put, there was no objective, non-political basis for the Board of Supervisors’ action.”

OpenBand will continue to provide service under the terms of its expired franchise agreement until June 2012, when it must transfer video services to another provider or be in violation of the county’s Open Video Systems ordinance, county officials said.

Ben Young, director of government affairs for OpenBand, said the company was considering several possible courses of action, including resubmitting its application.

Hodell-Cotti said her association is concerned that OpenBand will wait until after the election to resubmit its application. She noted that David Catania, vice president of corporate strategy for M.C. Dean, told The Washington Post this week that “the story isn’t over ” in regard to OpenBand’s franchise application.

Although the contributions made by OpenBand and M.C. Dean to local candidates are not illegal, they “definitely poses a question about ethics, both in terms of the candidates and the company,” Hodell-Cotti said. “All of OpenBand’s customers should be worried about this.”

Young protested the suggestion that contributions made by M.C. Dean should be a cause of controversy or concern.

“The contributions of our company are a drop in the bucket compared to other companies, frankly,” he said, referring to all the statewide races. “When all is said and done, our support will probably be around just 3 percent of the $1.3 million raised by [Loudoun] candidates. That hardly seems to rise to the level of ‘interesting.’ But we understand that anything is available for political fodder.”

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