The Montgomery County Council passed a complex consumer protection ordinance last week that creates a special five-member commission to assist county residents with service and billing disputes involving Comcast Cable Communications.

The measure, sponsored by council members Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), Philip Andrews (D-Rockville) and Blair G. Ewing (D-At-Large) was necessary, Praisner said, because of numerous complaints from residential and business customers who subscribe to Comcast's cable and Internet service.

County officials said that Comcast has done little to improve customer relations since taking over the cable contract two years ago and that customers are frequently frustrated by long wait times on the customer service lines, billing errors and Internet service outages for which they are sometimes still charged.

"Sometimes customers wait at home for service, and nobody shows up," Praisner said. "This commission will clearly respond to the consumer complaints we're facing in Montgomery County."

After a consumer fails to resolve an initial dispute with Comcast directly, Praisner said, the customer can appeal to the new panel, the Cable Compliance Commission, which would intervene on behalf of the customer and attempt to solve the problem. The commission can order refunds of subscriber fees, levy fines against Comcast and order Comcast to pay damages of up to $1,000 to customers. County officials are still working on specifics of how the commission will operate.

"I would be happy if the commission had a light workload because that would mean the cable company is responding to customer concerns," Praisner said.

Jerry Pasternak, special assistant to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), said that since January, there have been nearly 1,300 complaints against Comcast, ranging from billing matters to service delivery and reception problems. But Praisner said the number could be even higher because complaints are often lodged with council members' offices.

"This commission will afford consumers yet another avenue to bring complaints for resolution if they cannot get resolution from the [county] cable office or the cable company," Pasternak said.

Pasternak said an "overwhelming number of complaints" are resolved within 30 days through the county's Cable Communications Advisory Committee, which already exists to help customers with complaints against Comcast.

The newly formed Cable Compliance Commission, Pasternak said, would be an additional resource for customers. The Cable Communications Advisory Committee, he said, will also continue to serve Montgomery residents.

Keith Haller, a spokesman for Comcast, said "Comcast is committed to resolving any customer issues" and added that the present process for customer protection is working well.

"Adding the commission is unnecessary, costly and inappropriate," Haller said. "But Comcast will cooperate with the commission to resolve any complaints and lingering issues." Haller said the total number of Comcast "cable/modem" complaints this year is 259, although the county says it logged 333.

Comcast, which serves 210,000 homes in Montgomery, took over the county's 15-year franchise agreement with Cable TV Montgomery in 2000. Cable TV Montgomery had earned a reputation among subscribers for poor customer service. Since then, Comcast has invested more than $100 million to upgrade the network with fiber-optic cable. Comcast's only local competitor, Starpower Communications LLC, has a small number of customers in Takoma Park, Silver Spring and parts of Chevy Chase.

The outgoing council, which was meeting for its last session, passed the cable bill by a 7-2 vote. Council members Michael L. Subin (D-At-Large) and Donell Peterman (D-Silver Spring) voted against the legislation. Subin complained that he did not understand some of the bill's complex technical components and suggested the council take more time to research the issues before voting. He also implied that it was irresponsible to vote on legislation that had not been formally outlined, leaving many details to be filled in later.

"This is legislation on the run," Subin said. "It's not my style."

The cable commission's five members will be appointed by Duncan and confirmed by the council, Praisner said. Duncan has until March to make the appointments.