A cable television firm represented by former county executive Winfield Kelly yesterday won a multimillion-dollar franchise from the Prince George's County Council, which rejected the recommendations of an independent advisory commission in making its decision.
A second county franchise also went to a firm whose stockholders have powerful political connections. Among those stockholders are zoning lawyer Russell Shipley and Dr. Leon Levitsky, both Democratic party fund-raisers, and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Carlton Beall.
The legislation awarding the two franchises now goes to County Executive Lawrence Hogan, who could veto it if he chose to do so.
"I don't know what he's going to do," said Hogan's council liaison, Vincent McEvoy. "I think he's going to have to digest what's happened and go from there."
In choosing the two companies yesterday, the council rejected recommendations from both a five-member cable commission and a consultant hired to evaluate the cable applications. Both had recommended giving the franchise in the northern half of the county to MetroVision of Prince George's County, Inc., the company associated with Shipley, and the southern franchise to Viacom, a New York-based firm with no local investors. Instead, the council gave the northern franchise to Storer Cable Communications, a Miami-based firm headed locally by Kelly, and the southern franchise to MetroVision.
Members of the all-Democratic council defended their votes after yesterday's session.
"There was no politics," said council member Frank Casula. "I know in my vote there was no politics."
"If you pick 11 citizens in good faith and with reasonable intelligence, I think they would make the same decision," said council chairman Parris Glendening. "Storer was as solid as MetroVision."
Cable commission chairman Ronald Russo disagreed. "A nationwide company Viacom that was relatively clean was totally excluded, without good reason," he said, "and I think this sends a message to other local jurisdictions that unless you ally with a strong local interest you can save your money."
Council member William Amonett, who voted in favor of both awards, said later that friendship with company investors had nothing to do with his decision on whom to support. "I'm a local person and I like to see the local guys make money, but that wasn't the crowning blow," he said.
However, council member Sue Mills, who voted to award each franchise to the companies selected by the commission, labeled the votes a "set up" for Kelly and declared as she cast her vote against Storer: "I wasn't supported by the Democratic slate last time, so I don't need to vote yes."
Mills was the only member of the council who campaigned in 1978 independently from the slate endorsed by county Democratic leaders.
Council member Deborah Marshall joined Mills in voting against the award to Storer. "I just think it's wrong," she said.
A spokesman for Viacom was sharply critical of yesterday's votes. "It's pretty clear that the thing was done on the basis of politics," said Jane Lampmann, manager of new market development at Viacom. "It was given to MetroVision pretty much as a payoff for not giving it the northern franchise."
It was the rejection of Viacom that set up the awards to Storer and MetroVision. After the council voted 6 to 4 against Viacom, with one member abstaining, Amonett moved to give the southern franchise to MetroVision, which had been ranked second in that area by the cable commission.
The council approved that award by a vote of 6 to 3, with two members abstaining. Amonett moved to award the northern franchise to MetroVision as well, but the council accepted instead a motion from longtime Kelly ally Gerard McDonough to give the north to Kelly's firm. Storer's franchise was approved by a vote of 8 to 2, with one member abstaining. After the vote McDonough said he approached council members yesterday, told them he was going to vote for Storer in the north and suggested they vote for MetroVision in the south. He says he received no assurances from any that they would agree and he also assured them that he would not vote on MetroVision himself. He abstained from voting on MetroVision because his brother works for the company.
Both Amonnett and Casula suggested during the council meeting that Viacom had experienced problems with cable franchises elsewhere in the country, although neither would provide details. Both said the cable commission should have given more weight to those unspecified complaints against Viacom.
Council member Floyd Wilson said he supported Storer all along, because the company has won cable franchises in a number of municipalities in the northern part of the county. "I thought they had the track record," he said. "I don't think they the commission gave them a fair shot."
Once the southern franchise had gone to MetroVision, council member Ann Lombardi said, she could not vote to give the same company the northern half of the county. "I think there's a problem of giving it all to one company, she said. "For one company, it's just too much money."
Storer has estimated that by the 10th year of providing cable to the northern part of the county, it will be making $31 million annually on that franchise. MetroVision has estimated that it will be making nearly $27 million annually on the southern franchise by the 10th year.
Before the council voted on the award to Storer, McDonough read a lengthy prepared statement outlining his reasons for supporting the company. He said he preferred Storer because the company offered lower rates than some of its competitors, and because of its existing municipal franchises.