Members of the D.C. Cable Design Commission yesterday postponed action on a crucial consulting contract because of concern that the only company seeking the job favors public involvement in the ownership of the District's cable system.
At issue is a contract to advise the commission about whether to recommend private ownership of the potentially lucrative city cable television franchise or some city government ownership of the system.
The Booker T. Washington Foundation, which has long pushed the concept of a quasipublic development corporation here, was the only firm seeking the consulting contract on ownership.
"It isn't that they're biased, it's the appearance of fairness," said commission member Henry Geller, who led the argument for the delay.
The commission's executive committee did award the foundation a $12,500 consulting contract to study various public ownership alternatives.
However, it decided to hold off granting the foundation the other contract --worth possibly up to $15,000--dealing with broader ownership issues, including whether to award a single franchise or divide the city into two or more areas and offer franchises in each, as well as the financial soundness of various ownership proposals.
The district, which passed cable legislation last year, has lagged behind other area jurisdictions in bringing cable to residents.
Commission chairman William P. Lightfoot said in an interview that questions about the approval of consulting contracts are a major reason why the body is running behind schedule.
Lightfoot said it is unclear whether the commission--which has authority to approve consulting contracts--is required to follow city procurement rules, but has decided to do so whenever possible.
Half the commission's $200,000 budget is expected to go to consultants.
At yesterday's meeting, Geller said members of the committee studying the ownership question are interested in looking into the possiblity of a city-sponsored economic development corporation.
But, he said, members were concerned that if the consultant is the Booker T. Washington Foundation, opponents of an economic development concept might try to undermine it by saying that the foundation was biased in favor of such an approach.
Charles R. Tate, a foundation official, said his organization would not be biased and intends to continue to seek the contract.
A cable system involving an economic development corporation is seen as one of the best ways to promote minority cable ventures because it would not require as much investment capital as a privately owned system.
The commission now plans to seek additional bidders for the consulting contract, which it expects to award by mid-April.