The frenetic and increasingly bitter campaign began two weeks ago, when officers of the Fairfax Telecommunications Co. stayed in their offices late into the night putting out the word to their 215 local shareholders.
A Fairfax County evaluation committee had ranked the company second in a two-way battle for the cable television franchise, the stockholders were told, and it was up to them and their friends to flex enough political muscle to persuade the Board of Supervisors to reject that ranking. At stake is the $870,000 the shareholders had invested in the firm. If they lose the franchise, company officials say most shareholders realize their company will be worthless.
Those telephone calls triggered the kind of massive lobbying effort the elected board tried to prevent when it prohibited cable investors from even discussing the franchise with the board. To circumvent the restriction, Fairfax Telecommunications has relied on newspaper advertising, bumper stickers, and mass mailings, called out its lawyers, accused county staff of impropriety and turned to friends, relatives, town mayors, civic association presidents, library board appointees and anyone else with clout in the suburban power structure to get its message across.
The stockholders had reason to swing into action. The board will hold a public hearing on the issue tonight and is expected to award the franchise June 28. If the stockholders' efforts are successful, a county consultant has estimated they could earn between $42 and $54 during the next 15 years for every dollar they have invested. If competing Media General Cable of Fairfax Co. wins, the Fairfax Telecommunications shareholders lose their average $4,000 investments.
The stockholders were also positioned to know whom to call. In addition to politicians such as former Virginia state Attorney General Andrew P. Miller and Fairfax state Sen. Adelard L. (Abe) Brault, Fairfax Telecommunications had sold stock to Supervisor Nancy Falck's campaign treasurer, the young daughter of one of Supervisor Martha V. Pennino's closest supporters, several members of the Democratic Committee in Democratic Supervisor Audrey Moore's Annandale district, a former Republican county chairman who is friendly with Republican Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III and others with access to all nine supervisors.
"One of them sent me a list of all the Mount Vernon residents who own stock in cable TV," said Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth, who represents the Mount Vernon area. "And I didn't like that . . . The board has tried so hard to remove itself from anything that smacks of any pressure at all . . . It just doesn't seem right."
More than one hundred citizens--including Virginia labor and industry commissioner Azie Taylor Morton, another Fairfax Telecommunications stockholder--have signed up to testify, making tonight's hearing likely to be continued Friday night.
None of the supervisors is looking forward to making the award June 28. The county staff and a consultant agreed that both companies submitted adequate proposals, and while the staff endorsed Media General, the consultant declined to rank the two applications.
Media General also signed on local shareholders. Although there are only five--lawyer Richard Kennedy, builder Herbert L. Aman III and his wife Sandra B. Aman, real estate dealer Suzanne H. Paciulli and developer Edwin W. Lynch Jr.--they mostly represent Fairfax's powerful developer community.
"Nobody's going to be happy," Duckworth said, expressing the gloomy sentiment of most supervisors. "I wish we could paint it gone."
Both applicants promised more than one hundred channels of movies, sports and other programming. Both also promised two-way television for banking and shopping from home and channels for school plays, Little League games and county board meetings. They promised to invest between $85 million and $100 million in the system.
Despite the similarities, the two firms have been proclaiming their alleged advantages with increasing stridency. Media General, having been ranked first, has touted its proposal in full-page advertisements in The Washington Post and The Fairfax Journal but otherwise has maintained a low profile.
Fairfax Telecommunications, on the other hand, has printed bumper stickers, issued press releases, bought advertisements directly criticizing Media General and launched attacks on the county evaluation process. "Win or lose is one thing, but they the staff have made a deliberate effort to distort, omit and misstate facts," said L. Gary Byrd, president of the Springfield firm.
Byrd and his colleagues have put particular emphasis on his company's pledge to serve all of the county, claiming their opponents proposal would cover only about 60 percent of the county.
The company has sent letters to 27,000 residents of Fairfax's less densely populated western and southern neighborhoods, warning: "You may never receive cable service . . . Don't your tax dollars go to the county for the benefit of all residents???"
The letter included the addresses and telephone numbers of every supervisor, and supervisors say they promptly began hearing from the residents.
Falck and other county officials said the Fairfax Telecommunications campaign is somewhat misleading, because while Media General proposed to serve 60 percent of the county's land its plan would reach more than 93 percent of the county residents. Most of the remaining households could receive cable by paying as much as $125 extra for installation.
Still, Fairfax Telecommunications' lobbying has been extensive. Byrd's daughter met with the mayor of Herndon in western Fairfax. The company's public relations consultant called the president of the Federation of Citizens Associations, offering her group a 10 percent stake in a subsidiary corporation.
Byrd's son, Jeffrey, called civic association presidents throughout southern Fairfax as well as Lorton resident Nancy Camaur, Herrity's appointee on the county library board. Dorothy R. McCrory, president of a Lorton senior citizens group, promised to speak to her club after hearing from Jeffrey Byrd.
"A lot of them don't want cable because of the pornography that's been shown," McCrory said. "But if something's available to the rest of the county, it should be available to Lorton."
Ridgway B. Espy Jr., a retired banker and accountant and Falck's 1979 campaign treasurer, said the ban on direct contact with supervisors has been frustrating. "I know Nancy real well, and I can't go talk to her and I won't," Espy said. "I joke with her, I say, 'I want my TV,' and she says, 'Don't you talk to me, Ridge.'. . . I got to be a stockholder, not to make any money, but just to satisfy some friends. But I'm very interested in cable. I have it in my condo in Florida, I have it in my country club in Arlington and I don't have it in my Fairfax home."
Jeffrey N. Silverstein, a lawyer and stockholder who tried unsuccessfully to speak with Moore, is also troubled. "Why are we different from a developer who goes into the board room with his zoning attorney and sits there and smiles and wears his nice clothes and wants to be well thought of?" Silverstein said.