The City Council Tuesday faces one of the toughest issues before it this year when it is scheduled to begin debate on cable television.
According to several council members, the cable bill, which already has undergone lengthy discussion in the Public Service and Consumer Affairs Committee chaired by Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), may draw as many as two dozen amendments when the council takes up the measure at its bimonthly night meeting, which begins at 7 o'clock.
The cable TV issue, which has languished in various forms within the council for 2 1/2 years, could mean millions of dollars to potential franchise firms that want to bring cable television to the District.
But high startup costs, estimated to be anywhere from $40 million to $100 million, the question of minority participation and avoiding conflict of interest have made cable TV one of the most controversial issues the council has ever handled.
It is unclear how a recent Supreme Court ruling that has snarled the cable controversy in other jurisdictions will affect the debate in the District. The Supreme Court ruled in January that municipalities with home rule authority may be sued for violating federal antitrust laws.
A major issue in the city's cable debate involves the makeup and mandate of a proposed design commission that basically will decide the ground rules that cable companies must follow in bidding for franchise rights in the District and determine what restrictions the winning firm will have to operate under.
Currently, the bill provides for a 15-member commission, with each of 12 City Council members permitted to appoint one member, the council chairman to appoint two and the mayor to appoint one.
Mayor Marion Barry has said the bill as written freezes him out of the selection process and that he will oppose it. Barry wants the right not only to select the chairman of the design panel, but also to name the eventual franchise operator for the city's cable TV system.
Some council members and consumer groups have suggested that the design commission could end up too narrowly focused under the current bill. They are lobbying to enlarge the group by five or more commissioners to ensure a broad-based panel that would specifically represent minorities, women, labor and other groups.
Also under dispute is the one-year period the bill gives the commission to develop a plan for cable firms. Since many other jurisdictions either have cable or are far along the development process, some council members argue that the city can benefit from their research and cut the time the commission needs to complete its work.
Also controversial are requirements now in the bill that set stringent affirmative action responsibilities for whoever wins the cable franchise.
The council is torn between the strong affirmative action requirements--including one that about 70 percent of the franchise firm's employes be minorities within two years of winning the cable rights--and fears that overly protective regulations to ensure minority participation may scare away potential bidders.
Council members, both black and white, have also expressed concern that too much emphasis on minority ownership could be self-defeating should the city grant the franchise to a minority firm that is undercapitalized.
"We don't want to set up a small company to fail," Council Chairman Arrington Dixon said during a recent council discussion of the bill. Other council members, all of whom favor affirmative action guidelines, expressed similar reservations.
Two other major issues are conflict of interest requirements in the bill that strictly limit contact between potential cable franchises and city officials, and the developing controversy over cable subscribers' "right to privacy."
Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) and other council members recently said the bill's conflict of interest section is unrealistically drawn. Wilson said he felt the legislation would bar his staff from talking about the issue and "it would be foolish not to talk."
Council member John Ray (D-At Large) agreed. He characterized the conflict provisions as "close your mouth, don't look, don't talk."
Other issues include complex financial questions about the right of franchise holders to sell out to other firms, access to public utility wires and other facilities, cable regulation by the Public Service Commission, bankruptcy, and public access to cable channels by community, civic and activist groups.
Kay Pierson, head of the 2 1/2-year-old D.C. Cable Coalition, which is comprised of representatives of more than 20 activist organizations, said her group is lobbying to keep the strict conflict restrictions, protect privacy rights of subscribers and broaden the participation of the city's aged, handicapped and low-income residents on the design commission.
"We are not naive enough to believe it the conflict of interest provision is going to stop the backroom politics," Pierson said this week. "They should feel like they have to walk on eggshells."
"Nobody can see the technology" changes ahead that could affect the privacy of subscribers, Pierson added. Cable franchise officials should be subject to stiff penalties for the unauthorized release of information about subscribers, Pierson said. In addition, she said, the ability of cable companies to electronically monitor subscriber habits should be controlled.
The American Civil Liberties Union also has expressed an interest in the privacy issues raised by the cable bill.
As it stands, the council is not expected to take final action on the cable TV bill until sometime this summer. And depending on how long it takes the design commission to finish its work, it could be as long as two years before a franchise is awarded and three to five years before a cable TV system goes into service in the District.
But Pierson, along with some council staff members, noted that the city is so late getting into the cable business that all the debate about regulating it may become moot. Rapid advances in direct satellite-to-home TV broadcasting technology, which is subject to federal and not local regulation at present, may make cable TV obsolete before it can be installed in the District.
"Satellites are coming of age," Pierson said, "and becoming more and more affordable. When it comes to technology, I rule nothing out."