Long before the Prince George's County Council appeared yesterday for its first session on cable television franchise awards, cable company representatives had staked out their turf in the hearing room with pens, notepads, and mutual antipathy at the ready.
Winfield M. Kelly Jr., former county executive and current contender for a cable franchise, had failed to win the approval of the commission charged with making a recommendation to the council, but he handed copies of an article on cable regulation around the room with all the aplomb of a man who still controls the agenda.
"What's this, Winnie? What's this got to do with anything?" asked Susan Wallace, a representative of MetroVision, one of two firms the cable commission had recommended for county franchises.
"I think it's going to be a significant issue," Kelly replied crisply, "We've all got to choose our sides. I've chosen mine."
Now it is the council's turn to choose sides, as its members must decide during the next few weeks whether to follow the commission's suggestions or to award the franchises to other companies. No matter which way they turn, they face the prospect of either appearing to favor old friends or of offending longtime allies.
Nothing illustrates their dilemma better than the crowd that filled the hearing room yesterday as the commission formally presented its findings to the council.
Kelly sat squarely in the front row of the audience, surrounded by associates from the Storer company. He grumbled about what he called "mistakes" in the commission's report on his proposal, a sentiment shared by most of the other first-round losers. Two seats away sat Del. Frank Komenda, an official of Cross Country Cable, another company that did not win the commission's nod.
In the second row sat a platoon of Viacom executives flanked by their lawyers, Lance Billingsley and William Meyers. Both are Democratic fund-raisers in the county and Billingsley is a former chairman of the County Democratic Central Committee.
Nearby stood Russell Shipley, a powerful county zoning lawyer and attorney for Metrovision, the other company recommended by the cable commission. Representatives from other competing cable companies crowded around the edges of the room. They were present, they said, to make sure that the commission reported its findings faithfully.
"I am subject to criticism about any one of these applicants," said Gerard McDonough, a councilman and a longtime Kelly associate, and a friend of Billingsley, Meyers, Shipley, Komenda and many investors in Cablecom, whose stockholders include Park and Planning Commissioner Charles A. Dukes.
"Any award you give is certain to carry a taint," said Council Chairman Parris N. Glendening, who noted the ties between the all-Democratic council and applicants like Kelly and Billingsley.
"The hope is that the connections will all nullify each other," he said, "And the other side of it is that you don't want to give out an award only because of the lack of local involvement."
"I have resigned myself," Councilwoman Ann Lombardi said when the commission's findings were first revealed two weeks ago, "to the fact that I cannot make this decision without offending some members of the Democratic Party."
The council slogged faithfully through the complex and lengthy report yesterday, struggling with the complexities of upstream and downstream channels, character generators and video modulators. Many of them tried to conceal how little of the report they had actually managed to read during the crowded legislative week.
"Look, what you've basically got is a beauty contest," said McDonough. "What the people are really interested in is what entertainment at what price. As far as the fancy dance stuff, I haven't had anybody cry to me: 'Gosh, we've just got to have the municipal access, can't live without it.' "
"What we really need," said Councilwoman Deborah Marshall, "is a glossary."