A week and a half after the Leesburg Town Council had supposedly put its controversial cable television question to rest by awarding the franchise to Storer Broadcasting Co., the fight is far from finished.
The editor of a local weekly newspaper, the Monitor, has filed antitrust complaints with the U.S. Justice Department and the state of Virginia, charging that an agreement between the Loudoun Times-Mirror, the country's dominant weekly, and communications giant Storer is anticompetitive.
Two other franchise applicants have joined forces to charge that Storer's statements to the council were misleading and contradictory, and that its arrangement with the influential Times-Mirror unfairly restricts local cable news access.
And the whole town is buzzing with talk about the seemingly endless personal and financial ties between the council, the cable companies and the local news organizations that some say make it impossible for officials in this town of 10,000 to arrive at an unbiased decision.
"This is the biggest countroversy Leesburg's seen in years," says Bill Still, editor of The Monitor said author of the antitrust complaints. "The general population is beginning to smell a rat in this whole deal. I can't go anywhere without people talking to me about it, whispering things in my ear."
At issue is an agreement between Storer and the Times-Mirror that promises the paper exclusive rights to one cable television channel for local news broadcasting and the right to provide local segments inserted into cable network newscasts.
Storer also has promised to provide the Times-Mirror with a studio and cablecasting equipment, and granted it the right to revenues from any advertisments connected with its broadcasts.
While officials at Storer and the Times-Mirror deny any attempt to bar local news organizations for cable access and label the complaints a "smear campaign," Still alleges that high production costs would effectively keep him out of any television news operation.
"I don't think there's any merit to it [Still's antitrust argument] whatsover," said Times-Mirror general manager Randall E. Brannon. "He has access to cable channels if he wants to use them."
Dismayed by the continuing uproar, Leesburg's Town Council agreed to consider at next week's meeting whether to rescind its original franchise award to Storer. In the meantime, two defeated competitors, Matrix Enterprises and Mid Atlantic Cable, have joined forces to produce a proposal for a cable system they say rivals Storer's -- and also offers equal cable access to the Times-Mirror, the Monitor and WAGE, a local radio station.
Complicating discussion of the cable franchise, which is expected to serve up to 3,000 people and could act as a steppingstone to other area franchises, is the network of personal ties that has given rise to charges of influence peddling here.
Storer local investor Richard Johnson has long been a friend of Leesburg Mayor Kenneth B. Rollings, and contributed more than $300 to Rollins' unsuccessful campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates last year, according to country records. Johnson is also the owner of Johnson's Charcoal Beef House, a popular Leesburg gathering place where Rollins often meets his old friend Brannon.
The Times-Mirror has historically been a supporter of Rollins, and some here say he is anxious to retain the politically powerful paper's support for an expected future for the statehouse.
Attorneys for all three of the competing cable companies have at one time or another represented the Times-Mirror.
Making matters still more confusing is the fact that all three local news outlets stand to gain some degree of cable access through one or another of the cable proposals, fueling allegations of biased news coverage against all of them.