Wary of the political infighting that has tainted the awarding of cable television franchises elsewhere, Montgomery County officials have begun mapping strategy to avoid a similar donnybrook during the county's selection process.
Some of Montgomery's most prominent businessmen and politicians have financial stakes in cable TV companies that may seek one of the two franchises the county is expected to award.
As a result, County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and the County Council are considering a resolution that would bar him and council members from privately discussing a franchise with applicants or their representatives.
The resolution, on which the council expects to act next month, also suggest other ways to minimize political influence in the competitive bidding by discouraging the "rent-a-citizen" tactic cable companies have employed elsewhere.
In a memo prepared for the council's first public hearing last week on a proposed bill to govern the construction, maintenance and operation of cable systems, Gilchrist wrote:
"Major cable companies appear at times to expect that the final choice among good franchise applications would be influenced by the visible participation of local citizens in 10 to 20 percent of the ownership of the system."
Some firms have sought the support of prominent citizens in what Gilchrist called the "rent-a-citizen game."
Gilchrist said he concerned about the prospect of bitter divisions among community leaders aligned with competing firms and the constant pressure on the executive and council. I fear injury to the public image of the county and its officials and distraction from other pressing public business . . ."
To ward off this practice, Gilchrist said, cable firms and the public should be assured that franchises will be awarded on merit and without regard to the presence or absence of local ownership of the firms.
At the same time, he cautioned, there should be no bias against locally owned firms, and "giveaways of ownership shares or other financial inducements to county citizens or groups to support applicants" should be discouraged.
Gilchrist also suggested that the county establish an organization with assured funds, to sponsor community programming. This should offset the argument that a cable firm with local ownership would be more likely to support such programming, he said.
State Sen. Victor L. Crawford, chairman of Montgomery Community Cablevision Inc. and chairman of the county's Senate delegation, told the council." We (local investors) have to live here and if we do a bad job, we have to answer to our friends and neighbors . . . All I ask is that we don't be discriminated against (for being local)."
Besides Crawford, other county residents representing cable TV firms at the council hearing were Howard Thomas, cochairman of the Maryland Democratic Central Communications Corp., and Darrel Longest, a former deputy state's attorney who represents Mclean-Hunter Inc. l
Much of the testimony at the four-hour hearing was technical in nature, but there were other suggestions for preserving the integrity of the bidding process.
Jeffrey Krauss of Rockville recommended having an "auction" or "lottery" of the franchise for firms that can meet minimum standards set by the county.
John Hansman, Montgomery's cable television project manager, said he would prepare more information Krauss' proposal for the council's July 7 workship session on the bill.
Jane Simons, representing Cox Cable Communications Inc., suggested the county require each bidder to post a $1 million bond, to guarantee that the firm is financially able to build a system.
Nancy Walker, director of the school system's Department of Instructional Resources, said the cable system "can't be used as a major instructional tool unless all schools are wired. We want to see all schools wired . . . (so) we would not set up an unequal situation."
Bill Hyman, a Rockville resident who said he has spent countless hours watchng sports and other entertainment features on Arlington's cable TV system, urged the council, which has been considering cable franchises for 10 years, to move ahead quickly.
Passage of the bill could come as early as next month. Hansman estimates it will be another year before any franchises are awarded, and another three to five years before the full system is in operation.