The District of Columbia was urged yesterday to strengthen its cable television law to shield the potentially lucrative business of cable television here from improper political influence and conflicts of interest.
Brian Lederer, director of the Office of Peoples' Counsel, told a D.C. City Council committee hearing on the cable issue that the law should provide "complete disclosure" of all financial interests of cable firms.
Lederer, whose office represents consumers before the Public Service Commission, also warned that the cable law should "specifically prohibit rent-a-citizen" practices in which cable firms obtain local partners solely for political purposes in hopes of landing a city franchise.
The current law requires full disclosure only on applications and reporting of changes that affect more than 5 percent of the ownership. "In a $120 million system," Lederer said in an interview, amounts under 5 percent "can be a lot of money."
Lederer said the current law "specifically discourages" rent-a-citizens, but he proposed that such practices disqualify bidders.
"There is just so much money at stake," Lederer said after testifying during a day-long hearing by the Committee on Public Services and Cable Television that covered a broad range of issues involved in the city's cable law.
The D.C. Cable Design Commission is scheduled to propose formal guidelines for licensing cable franchises in the District in July.
Members of the City Council, who granted themselves the power to select cable operators here, have said it probably will be at least a year before the council makes its selections.
One of the major issues raised at yesterday's hearing was whether the Public Service Commission should regulate cable television, a provision now in the law.
Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), chairman of the committee, has proposed a bill to consolidate cable regulation in a separate Office of Cable Television, leaving the PSC only limited authority.
Kane's bill also would significantly reduce or eliminate the authority of as many as 10 other city agencies that are specifically given roles in regulating cable.
Lloyd Moore, representing the PSC, argued that the commission should retain its authority over cable television. "The PSC already has a structure . . . that can easily be adapted to cable television" to monitor service and consumer complaints, Moore said.
Other issues included whether cable companies will have the right to wire apartment and office buildings without having to negotiate access fees with building owners.
The Apartment and Office Building Association said unlimited access by cable firms would infringe on private property rights "without compensation." Cable firms fear owners of large buildings might charge high fees to connect their buildings or bypass cable with private systems.