For several tense hours Tuesday afternoon, it appeared that representatives of Storer Cable Communications had been almost too savvy for their own good.
An influential and aggressive salesman in the person of former county executive Winfield Kelly joined his friend, Councilman Gerard McDonough, to form an apparently unbeatable team steering the Kelly-backed Storer company to a share of the Prince George's County's cable television dollars. But their very success almost cost Storer the award, as one County Council member gave vent to simmering resentment over lobbying tactics he considered "harassment" and nearly handed County Executive Lawrence Hogan the votes he needed to reject Kelly's company.
After hours of lobbying by other council members and unnamed callers to his hearing room telephone, however, Laurel council member Frank Casula yielded to the pressure and changed his vote, putting Storer over the top.
"I was a little disturbed at the whole process," Casula told reporters after the second vote, "It gets to you after a while, you know?"
"The whole process," as Casula put it, has been the source of controversy from the start. All but two of the eight companies vying for a county franchise carried a load of prominent local investors, and the council halls became fertile ground for controversy as some of these people began to lean heavily on past and present political friends.
In the end, the council voted to reject the recommendations of the county's independent advisory commission, awarding the franchises to Storer Cable Communications in the north and the equally well-connected MetroVision of Prince George's County in the south. Hogan vetoed both awards on the grounds that they were politically motivated, and the council overrode both vetoes.
Despite charges by the cable commission and others that the votes were a prearranged "setup" for Kelly, McDonough and other council members insist the original awards were uncertain until all the votes were actually cast. Rather than the smooth workings of a freshly oiled Democratic machine, the cable decisions were more the product of last-minute maneuvering and hasty alliances forged between council members with vastly different objectives.
Last week's awards and their final resolution Tuesday reflected a variety of competing factors, including Storer's successful strategy of winning municipal support; the timidity of a handful of council members who knew their preferences but did not advance them; the general lack of support for a company that had won the commission's recommendation but that had no local investors, and McDonough's shrewd manipulation of other council members' reticence in the moments preceding the vote.
From the beginning a few points were clear. "There was a general feeling that McDonough would do anything to help Kelly," said Ann Lombardi, an observation that McDonough readily echoed. Though McDonough knew he would rue the day his friend and mentor got involved in the cable business ("I thought, 'O, God, Win, don't do that to me,' " McDonough said, knowing he would be called on to win support for his old boss, and to take the heat for it as well), he also knew he "couldn't think of doing it any other way."
Equally sure was that almost no one wanted Viacom, the company preferred by the commission to receive the southern franchise.
"Viacom would come up and everybody would sort of sneer," said Lombardi, who, along with Deborah Marshall, nevertheless determined to support the company as a show of support for the commission. "We were determined to go good government on this one," Marshall said.
Other council members seemed to go out of their way to find fault with the company. Casula charged that Viacom had a poor record of service to other jurisdictions, though he would not specify which ones. Council Chairman Parris Glendening criticized Viacom's coverage area, even though the area was almost twice that proposed by MetroVision in the south. Council member William Amonett said MetroVision's extension policy was superior to Viacom's, though MetroVision is not scheduled to serve Amonett's own area in the first two years, and even then will require a greater density of homes in an area before it will provide service.
But Viacom's most serious problem was its lack of local ties. Though the company had hired two prominent Democratic attorneys, William Meyers and Lance Billingsley, it had no powerful local investors like those associated with Storer, MetroVision, and Cross Country Cable.
"There was no way Viacom was going to get it," said McDonough, . . . . They were total outsiders."
Meanwhile, Kelly was doing everything in his power to make Storer the only option in north county, in a strategy developed about three years before by Kelly's friend and former FCC official John McAllister. Storer made a strong pitch for franchises in the municipalities in the north, a tactic that ultimately gained the company 17 smaller franchises and entrenched it in several council members' own back yards. In a carefully orchestrated blitzkrieg of ads and appearances in the days before the vote, Kelly endeavored to remind the council members of that fact.
"Everything was north county," said Kelly, "We wanted to tell the people in Frank's Casula's district that we could do it in the north . . . It was my biggest advantage and I played it to the hilt."
When it came time to vote on the issue, McDonough found a way to capitalize both on Viacom's unpopularity and the Storer advantage. "Lights began flashing in my head," said McDonough, of the stroke of genius that hit him as he wandered down to the council room, "Go South!"
Voting on the southern franchise first, the council rejected Viacom and awarded the franchise to MetroVision, clearing the way for McDonnough to introduce a motion for Storer in the north. MetroVision won the southern award on a motion by Amonett, a Brandywine businessman with ties to many MetroVision investors, who made clear before the vote that his "priority" was ensuring that MetroVision got something. He jumped in with his motion as soon as Viacom went down in defeat.
McDonough abstained on the MetroVison vote because his brother works in the law office of Russell Shipley, a company investor.
Although they had met previously and agreed on support for Cross Country in the south, council members Casula, Sarah Ada Koonce and Floyd Wilson could not get a motion for that company on the floor.
While all this was going on, resentment was brewing among some council members who felt they were being railroaded, among them Frank Casula. In the end, Casula's resentment spilled over on the council when he first refused to vote to override the Hogan veto. "I was mad at the whole setup," he said. He changed his mind after being forcefully reminded that a successful veto could deprive everybody in the north county of cable for quite a while.
Casula acknowledged that Kelly's victory is likely to mean criticism for him and other council members. But, he said, "I can explain my position. I'm never at a loss to explain the decisions I make -- thank God for that."