The Prince George's cable television commission called on County Executive Lawrence Hogan yesterday to veto the County Council's cable franchise awards, charging the choices were based "purely on political expediency and allegiances, and clearly were not in the best interests of the citizens of Prince George's County."
The commission also charged that the council's choices would provide demonstrably poorer service for county residents than the firms recommended by the commission itself.
Tuesday the all-Democratic council awarded a multimillion-dollar cable franchise in the northern half of the county to Storer Cable Communications, a firm headed locally by former Democratic county executive Winfield Kelly, the political mentor of many council members. The southern franchise went to MetroVision of Prince George's County, a firm represented by influential, local zoning lawyer Russell Shipley.
The commission, which was created by the council in order to provide an independent, expert assessment of the cable proposals available to the county, had recommended MetroVision for the northern franchise and a third firm, Viacom, for the southern one.
"Before the Storer system is ever built it will be below standard," said Dolores Early, executive director of the commission.
Commission Chairman Ronald Russo said in a statement that subscribers to Storer will pay about one-third more over the life of the franchise and receive "measurably poorer TV reception" than they would if the council had selected MetroVision in the north. In the southern part of the county, Russo said, far fewer residents will be served by MetroVision than by the commission's favored firm.
Representatives of Storer immediately responded to the charges by calling a press conference to defend their franchise proposal.
"What we're committed to is building the very best system available. Storer doesn't build an obsolete system," said Todd A. Spoeri, vice president and general manager of the Miami-based Storer company. Spoeri said he had planned to visit the county yesterday anyway and wanted an opportunity to "set the record straight."
Kelly said the commission had failed to adequately consider some parts of Storer's rate structure that would effectively serve to lower rates for county customers.
Council Chairman Parris Glendening denied that the vote to award the franchises was politically motivated. " The commission must know something I don't know because I just don't see it that way," he said. "I talked to two or three council members the morning of the vote and nobody knew which way it was going to go."
County Executive Hogan has until Dec. 2 to sign or veto the legislation, and he continued to refuse comment on his intentions yesterday. "All I can tell you is that he will not make a decision before he's had a chance to contact the Office of Law, to contact the commission, et cetera, and that's just going to take several days at best," said Hogan's spokesman, Robert Hunter.
Commission members told reporters they called yesterday's press conference in anger over the council's decision to reject their two top-rated companies "without one substantive reason."
"The council chose to use this decision as a political payoff," said Russo in a prepared statement. "They paid mere lip service to the six-and-a-half-month study by this citizen commission and the professional consultant who was hired at the direction of the County Council and paid over $71,000 to provide the county with technical expertise."
The commission had rated Storer third for the northern franchise, in part because the company offered fewer channels than any other company. In the south, the commission said Viacom, one of only two applicants with no local investors, would serve over 7,500 more households than MetroVision, which they rated second there.
"MetroVision was also underbudgeted by $3 million in the south, although they did not have that problem in the north," said Early."Many people don't understand that the companies submitted two separate proposals."
Kelly said yesterday that the equipment Storer will use to provide 82 channels to cable users could have the capacity to provide up to 112 channels, the number offered by other companies. He said Storer has budgeted between $300,000 and $400,000 yearly to upgrade its system.
MetroVision officials could not be reached yesterday for comment on the commission's statements.