Winfield M. Kelly Jr., the politician-turned-salesman, was having all sorts of problems trying to sell the town fathers of Seat Pleasant on cable television the other night. The sound system on his videotape of neighborhood life had staged its first of three breakdowns. Members of the City Council looked sleepy, and the audience was glassy-eyed at discussions of "state of the art" technology and educational television programming.
Then the former Prince George's County executive, who represents the giant Storer Broadcasting Co. in its pursuit of lucrative cable franchises in the country, pulled out what Seat Pleasant's mayor called an "appetizing carrot" -- the promise of a $10,000 check to the city for examining his offer.
That payment, which was delivered earlier this week and is now being called into question by Kelly's competitors and some county officials, is considered common practice in communities whose laws specify that competing cable companies should underwrite the cost of the community's cable franchising procedure.
In this case, however, the 7,000-resident city has not enacted a law to govern its cable franchises procedure, leaving Storer to set its price on a payment. Kelly told the councilmen they should use the money for any legal costs they might incur in evaluating his proposal, and that it should also serve as a bond in case an eventual agreement between the city and Storer might fall through.
"This is identical to what's done in most jurisdictions in Prince George's County," Kelly says. "We know by experience, based on the other towns we work with, that they do require a bond and we've followed that approach all the way."
What seemed normal to Kelly, however, appeared extraordinary to others. "This strikes me as highly irregular," says Delores Early, executive director of the county's Cable Television Commission. "Instead of the town setting the application fee, it seems that the companies are setting it themselves. If another company comes along and offers them $20,000, maybe they would rather take that application.
"Is this [payment] going to become a competitive item between the cable companies?"
The payment question is only the latest in a series of cable squabbles for Kelly, a flamboyant politician who is leading in the highly competitive, free-for-all battle for wiring rights in each of the county's 28 municipalities. Kelly and several other cable firm representatives also are vying for the two franchises in the county's unincorporated areas, but that decision is being coordinated through the county government.
Kelly's main opponent in the municipal franchise race seems to be the New Jersey-based Cross Country Cable, headed locally by state legislator Frank Komenda, who is as well connected to southern Prince George's towns as Kelly is in the north.
Komenda says Kelly's payment to Seat Pleasant, which was received by city director of community services Doris Townsend, is "unusual to say the least," adding that Cross Country regularly gives municipalities a $1,000 nonrefundable application fee and a $10,000 refundable deposit, but only when local ordinances require it.
He says Cross Country had made no such payment to Seat Pleasant because the city had not yet enacted its franchise ordinance.
Art Barber, an officer of the First Communications Co., which is among those seeking cable rights countywide, says the Storer payment was indicative of the chaotic manner in which franchises were being awarded. Over the past year, Storer has won 10 of the 11 franchises awarded by municipalities in Prince George's, with most in the north county areas Kelly considers his political stronghold.
"It's normal when a town advertises a bid [for it] to advertise an application fee," says Barber. "But the difference here is that there was no ordinance, no public solicitation of bids and no established rules of the game. Kelly can send in whatever he wants. You can't complain if there's no rules governing it."
Seat Pleasant Mayor Frank J. Blackwell says the city has not officially accepted the certified check from Storer, and that he doubts it would affect the City Council's decision.
"There has been pretty stiff competition between Storer and Cross Country, and he [Kelly] is trying to offer as much as possible to get the municipalities to go in with him," says Blackwell. "But before I would go into any arrangement like that, I'd have to study the matter."