A key citizens committee this week told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that both applicants for the county's lucrative cable television franchise are unacceptable, leading one supervisor to say that the long-delayed and troubled award process should be started anew.
The Task Force for Public Access Television, which was appointed by the board, agreed unanimously that neither Media General Cable of Fairfax County Inc. nor Fairfax Telecommunications had submitted "responsive or acceptable" proposals, said task force chairman David Huddleston.
The recommendation was bad news for county officials already nervous about having only two applicants for their $100 million cable television monopoly. If the committees now evaluating other aspects of the proposals, such as financial capability, also turn thumbs down later this month, the supervisors will find themselves in the difficult bind of either accepting a bid that has been labeled inferior or of angering constituents by further delaying the process.
The task force evaluated provisions for public access -- the ability of citizens to use cable television to transmit meetings, school plays, Little League games, community association speeches and any other programs they might choose. Huddleston said the proposals failed to give his nonprofit citizens group the control it needs to make the program work.
"Promises of support for access television are easily made and in many communities have been too easily broken," Huddleston wrote in his letter to the supervisors. "Participation in public access television cannot be guaranteed if the cable operator controls the essential factors of production." He said the companies could censor local programming if citizens do not control the studios, the equipment and the channels themselves.
Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, vice-chairman of the board, said the board should reject the two proposals and readvertise for new bids if the county attorney decides that such a move would be legal. "Obviously, neither of them complied," Pennino said. "We might even get some new bidders."
Board Chairman John F. Herrity, who repeatedly has criticized the board for its time-consuming studies of cable television, disagreed and said the board should award a franchise to one of the two applicants before its August recess.
"We always tend to take the focus off what the majority of viewers want," Herrity said. "Movies and sports is what they want to see . . . I see no way this issue can stand in the way of us deciding who's going to get the cable franchise."
Fairfax officials were disappointed in February when only two companies submitted cable television proposals a few weeks after Montgomery County had received eight bids. They attributed the low turnout to the county's dispersed households and its extensive bid document as well as to high interest rates and the over-commitment of many cable firms around the country.
Both Fairfax bidders have said their proposals would be competitive in any market, and spokesmen for both companies yesterday rejected the task force's criticism. "I don't understand what their problem is," said Media General's Lorraine Foulds.
Spokesmen for both companies said their proposals do, in fact, guarantee control to the citizens group. They also complained that Huddleston and his committee never spoke with them or gave them a chance to clarify their proposals.
"We would take very unkindly to any suggestion to readvertise," said Fairfax Telecommunications president L. Gary Byrd. "It would be a basic . . . violation of the responsibility of the county."