For the second time in a week, a publicly funded organization has become ensnarled in the increasingly intense competition for three lucrative cable television franchises in Fairfax County.
Public television station WNVT has offered to provide assistance for the competing cable applicants, and some cable company executives say the offer amounted to the promise of lobbying assistance in return for stock or financial assistance from the companies.
"My impression was that they were saying the company who gives us the best deal is who we will go in with and they should win" the franchise, said Arthur Barber, general manager of Community Cablevision.
A spokesman from WNVT, a nonprofit organization that operates on chanels 53 and 14 from the campus of Northern Virginia Community College, disputes that interpretation of his station's message. But Fairfax County officials were concerned enough by the offer to circulate a disclaimer stressing that WNVT has no power to influence the county's decision in awarding the franchises.
WNVT General Manager Dan Ward said yesterday the station was seeking only to provide all potential cable franchisers an equal opportunity to use Wnvt's technical equipment and expertise.
He said the station was not seeking to secure a favorable financial return from the eventual winner of the cable franchise, and said WNTV had withdrawn its offer days after the county disowned it "in an effort to withdraw ourselves from the political process."
"We didn't think we were being political, but apparently the county administrator perceived us as being political," he said.
Some among the 23 cable firms who are seeking the county's business disagree, saying the public broadcast outlet was trying to trade its political muscle for cash.
Barber of Communty Cablevision said his impression was blostered by his recollection of a meeting he had with Ward in March in which he said Ward informed him that the television station has already received offers of remuneration or stocks from two potential cable franchisers.
"It's clear that he was trying to elicit similar offers," Barber said.
Ward denied that the station has ever received any offers of money or stock from cable companies, but a spokesman for Trans County Cable said yesterday both had been discussed "as options" in a conversation between his firm and WNVT earlier this year.
Alan H. Magazine, a former county supervisor who is a vice president of Trans County Cable, said neither option is still under consideration, but he said the county's disclaimer had not influenced the company's decision.
Earlier this week, the County Board of Supervisors called for an investigation on learning that another publicly funded organization -- the Fairfax County Council of the Arts -- had accepted a 1 percent interest in Trans County in exchange for advice on arts programming.
Government officials in Fairfax have been particularly sensitive to suggestions of impropriety or conflict of interest in the developing race for the cable franchise, which could mean millions of dollars for the winners.
Cable firms are lining up dozens of what skeptics call "rent-a-citizens" -- public officials who are willing to lend their names and assitance in return for a portion of the winnings.
WNVT's offer of assistance came in a June 3 letter to all potential cable operators, in which it spelled out services the station could possibly provide for the winner of the cable franchise.
Among services offered by the station, which provides educational television service to the Fairfax County school system, were: production of programs affairs programming, program design services, local sports programs and community events shows. The letter asked the cable companies to subsmit bids, but did not specify what the stations expected to receive in return for its service.
Apparently alarmed at the possible suggestion that WNVT could sway county supervisors, county cable administrator William Rossi Jr. sent out a strongly worded letter two weeks later, after their office began to receive queries and complaints from cable firms about the WNVT message.
"Applicants are hereby given notice that WNVT's selection of a proposal shall not in any way influence the county's decision on the selection of a franchise operator. The county has not entered into any agreement with WNVT to operate, produce programming, or participate in subscriber or institutional networks. Any implication of such by their letter or any other source is without foundation," Rossi's letter read.
Within days, WNVT withdrew its request for proposals.
Although WNVT serves Northern Virginia, many in that most populous region of the state are unable to receive its signal. With its transmitter placed in Independent Hill in Prince William County, the station can be received by viewers in Loudoun, Fauquier and southern Fairfax counties, and by those who are served by cable television in Arlington. A cable system in Fairfax would probably broaden WNVT's viewing base -- something that is important to station officials as the federal government moves closer to reassigning channel 14 to a station in Washington.
WNVT receives about half of the funds for its annual $1 million budget from the state of Virginia. Another 25 percent comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the rest from general contributions and corporate donations.