Within hours after the Prince George's county council voted to ensure that politically well-connected Storer Cable Communications Inc. would hold on to a county cable television franchise, state Del. Thomas Mooney called the local papers, decrying the multimillion-dollar award as "the sleaziest thing they've ever done."
Mooney and a group of maverick Democratic allies then announced plans to seek a referendum next fall on the council's decision. For the last three weeks, volunteers have paced the shopping centers of northern Prince George's, braving frigid December winds, chapped hands, freezing pens and voter apathy in search of the 10,000 signatures needed to place on the ballot the question of whether Storer should have the franchise.
Mooney said that he expects to have half of the necessary signatures by Christmas. So far, however, the group has collected only about 1,000. If the question is to appear on the November ballot, 3,300 signatures must be obtained by Jan. 8, and the rest by Feb. 22.
"I don't think I've had a single turn-down on the merits of the issue. But people don't want to take off their gloves to sign. It's too cold," said Del. Timothy Maloney, one of the organizers of the group tentatively known as CABL ("Citizens to Abolish Bad Legislation; we think it's kind of cute," said Mooney.)
Opponents of the drive say they do not doubt that the volunteers can collect the signatures, but they are equally confident that Storer nevertheless will win in the end.
"You can get 10,000 signatures to stop growing grass in a graveyard in a county of this size," said former county executive Winfield Kelly, vice president of Storer's local operation. But he warned that a referendum would delay construction of the countywide system at least one year.
"We would have to do it at our own risk in anticipation of a successful conclusion to the referendum , and no company can afford to do that," he said. "I can tell you we will not build unless the award is final."
Kelly said that Storer soon will launch a campaign aimed at convincing voters of the merits of his company's proposal. He said that he is helping to organize a citizens' group, to be called "CABLE/NOW," in order "to put out the truth before the voters."
In addition, Kelly, who said he believes the petition drive is directed at him personally, expects active support from the officials of the 17 municipalities that also have awarded their franchises to Storer. Several of those municipalities already have functioning cable systems, and officials in some of those communities feel the petition drive calls their own judgment into question.
Others, like Greenbelt councilman Thomas White, resent the idea "that south county residents will be voting on a north-county issue."
Although a referendum would be voted on county-wide, the petition drive addresses only the Storer franchise. It amounts to a simple question of whether Storer should or should not have the business. Voters would not be given the opportunity to select another company to serve the north, and the franchise awarded to the MetroVision cable firm in the southern part of the county would not be affected.
The organizers of the drive first intended to put both franchise awards before the voters, but scaled back their plans, Mooney said, because most of the volunteers lived in the northern part of the county.
Those citizens who already have signed the petition have done so for a variety of reasons. Shirley Donley of College Park, for example, originally did not want to sign.
"I don't like cable television," she told Mooney, who replied: "This doesn't mean you're for it or against it, this just means you support the people's right to choose." So she signed, saying, "Well, there's been a controversy. This will help clear it up."
Irving Siegel of Greenbelt signed because "the council went completely against the consultant that they set up themselves. There was one company that offered a better deal. It's my opinion that the reason Storer was selected was -- what's his name -- Winfield Kelly and his friendship with members of the Council." In choosing both Storer and MetroVision, the council rejected the recommendations of an independent advisory commission and an outside consultant.
But one University Park woman signed because she said the referendum meant that "if a person doesn't want the cable in his house it's up to them." And another College Park woman signed, explaining: "I'm a personal friend of Kelly. I'd like to support him anyway I can."
Mooney said later that it is impossible to fully explain the issue in the few minutes people are willing to stop. Nevertheless, he added, members of the group are committed to the drive in order to "restore some integrity to the process. Our intention is to get the best deal for the voters."
But Kelly said that part of his educational campaign would question the purity of those intentions, adding, "If they're really concerned about the process, then both companies would be going to referendum."
He noted that Maloney, a founder of the group, has ties to a losing cable company, since the cochairman of Maloney's financial committee, former state delegate Meyer Emanuel, owns 2,500 shares (1.5 percent) of stock in Cablecom, a company rated second by the independent cable commission for the northern area. One of the losing companies could be awarded the lucrative northern franchise, if the voters rule out Storer.
Both Maloney and Emanuel vehemently deny that they ever have discussed the cable issue. Maloney said he was aware that Emanuel was involved with a cable company, but said he did not know which one until a reporter questioned him about the relationship.
"I have nothing to do with the referendum," said Emanuel. "There's no use crying over split milk. I can chuckle about it, but I'll have nothing to do with it."