The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted last night to an acrimonious session punctuated by shouting to postpone by up to six months the county's award of its lucrative cable television franchise, previously scheduled for next March.
In a 5-to-4 vote, prompted in part by worries that the award of free stock in cable companies to influential local citizens might boost cable subscriber fees, the board decided to order a detailed study by the county's Consumer Product Safety Commission. Three previous efforts to include citizen participation in the county's cable decision had been defeated by the board.
Earlier in their meeting, the supervisors worked out their differences on the cable question long enough to give preliminary approval to an ordinance that would require extensive disclosure of political and financial links between area public officials and the 22 companies that have expressed interest in the county's cable business. The ordinance, if given final approval, will make violators guilty of a felony.
The emotional exchanges preceded the vote to commission the study of the economic and technical ramifications of the county's plan to grant one company exclusive wiring rights to the county's 200,000 homes.
"This board obviously doesn't want to go ahead with cable," shouted Lee Supervisor Joseph Alexander (D).
"I just want to find out if there are any implications to cable television that we don't know about," retorted Centreville Supervisor Martha V. Pennino (D).
"Then why are you trying to study it to death?" countered Alexandria. He said his constituents were irritated that 18 months of county deliberations had failed to bring a single first-run movie to their home TV screens.
Pennino: "There's a lot more to cable than you know about."
Alexander: "I don't care."
Pennino: "I know you don't care, and that's exactly why we need to take another look at this."
The combined effort of yesterday's actions will be to postpone for months -- possibly until February of 1982 -- the date by which county residents can expect to see the beginning of construction on a Fairfax cable system. Previously, county officials had hoped they could award their franchise by next March, with the requirement that the winning company start laying cables by next fall.
Completion of the system is not expected until up to five years after the first cable is installed.
The outburst in Fairfax last night is an example of what is happening in major television markets around the country as communications giants compete for cable franchises in what is being called "the last great gold rush." Recent technological advances hold out the promise of big profits for the cable firms while local officials dodge the crossfire amid charges of political influence peddling.
Experts estimate that the company that wins the Fairfax franchise will be pulling in annual revenues of up to $18 million by its 10th year of operation.
In presenting the study proposal, which took some board members by surprise, Pennino expressed fear that promient local figures given free stock in cable companies -- called "rent-a-citizens" in the industry -- would unfairly jack up cable television costs to county consumers.
It is common practice by cable companies to buy lobbying assistance by granting big chunks of stock to prominent local citizens at no cost or at a fraction of the stock's market value. The presence of such "investors," experts say, can boost by up to $2.50 the monthly user fee charged to consumers.
Pennino asked the citizens group to make sure a county cable system could not be used for surveillance and said privately she hoped it would examine whether the county should own its own cable system rather than awarding the franchise to a private company.
In another approach to the "rent-a-citizen" question, the board's proposed disclosure ordinance would require county supervisors and their families as well as some county employes to divulge any business dealing or financial transactions with cable companies.
"There's no such thing, in this instance, as being too strict," said Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth (D-Mount Vernon). "We want everything of record out where the citizens and the board can see it -- every nickel."
Board Chairman John F. Herrity (R) loudly praised the action on the disclosure ordinance, saying it proves "we are doing everything under the sun and the moon and the stars to ensure disclosure."
He complained bitterly about the board's decision to add the Consumer Products Safety Commission study -- which he called "paralysis by analysis." p
For Supervisor Marie B. Travesky (R-Springfield), who voted to support both measures, last night's actions were an attempt to end some of the intense speculation that has accompanied discussion of cable in Northern Virginia's most populous locality.
"I almost wish we could have the entire selection process done outside the country," she sighed. "Somebody out there with their haloes intact could make the selection . . . It has become that big a bogeyman."