Mid-atlantic Cable Co. Faces Fines For Franchise Violations

March 17, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Mid-Atlantic Cable Company, which serves the western portion of Howard County, has violated its franchise agreement and could be fined $500 a day if the violations are not corrected, cable television administrator James O'Connor said this week.

O'Connor told the county cable advisory committee Wednesday that Mid-Atlantic has not completed construction it had agreed to, has not provided a public access studio, and has not carried the county government and educational channels.

Mid-Atlantic is serving only 2,100 of the 5,000 homes it agreed to have served by now, yet wants to change the minimum service requirement in the franchise agreement from 20 to 30 customers per mile, O'Connor said.

The penalty for not completing construction is a fine of $300 a day. The fines for not providing a public access studio andfor failure to carry the county government and educational channels is $100 a day for each violation.

O'Connor said he wrote Mid-Atlantic Jan. 8 telling the company it was in violation. "Their response was less than satisfactory," he told the cable advisory board.

"There was foot dragging" and a "total lack of good faith" between what the company said it would do and what it did do, O'Connor said. There were also many minor violations, O'Connor told the board.

Representatives of Bethesda-based Mid-Atlantic were supposed to have met withthe cable board Wednesday night to respond to O'Connor's charges, but called to say they were snowed in in Richmond, Va. and would be unable to attend.

John Norcutt, a general partner of Mid-Atlantic, said Thursday that O'Connor is "technically correct" about the three major violations.

The public access studio will be in place and functioning this week, he said, and will be airing tapes of programs cablecast live on the government and public access channels.

Norcutt said the County Council is aware of some of the "protracted circumstances" Mid-Atlantic has experienced while attempting to fulfill the franchise agreement, including its difficulties getting a studio and finding a suitable method of cablecasting the government and educationalchannels.

He said his overall impression is that the council is "very pleased to have an absolutely first class cable system" operating in the western part of the county.

"There are no circumstances that justify fines," he said. "I would be very surprised if the council -- which is who we've been working with -- imposed fines when cablehas dropped by 33 1/3 percent and we're serving an area that no one else thought financially important."

Norcutt said Mid-Atlantic hadmissed only one meeting with the cable committee before last week. He said he would be meeting with the cable advisory committee March 27. "I am sure we can work together to find a solution" to any remaining problems, he said.

Although committee members refused to make a recommendation to the council regarding Mid-Atlantic until they have heard from a company spokesman, their attitude was far from cordial.

"All of us are somewhat dissatisfied with Mid-Atlantic and their soft-shoe act," said cable advisory committee member Peter H. Bennett."I don't know what's going on down there, but I know how unhappy I am with that outfit."

In unrelated action, committee members chastised County Executive Charles I. Ecker for not getting the board's approval before submitting a bill to the council that would divert nearly $1 million in franchise fees to the county's general fund.

"You're new here, yet, but there seems to be an attitude in the administration not to bother with us even though we're the only body that (by law) must be consulted" about use of the franchise fees, Bennett told Ecker.

"I guarantee you will be consulted in the future -- I apologize," Ecker replied.

Bennett then wanted to know if the use of the franchise fee money paid the county each year by the cable companies was a transfer or a loan.

"We're asking that it be given (to thegeneral fund) for one year," Ecker said. "There is nothing in the bill about paying it back."

Bennett said, "If I could be convinced you wouldn't be making the same request next year, I could be pretty friendly about this."

Ecker responded, "It is not my intention to make the same request next year, but I can make no promise about that."

Ecker said he would send budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks to the committee's next meeting to discuss the county's financial needs and determine how much of the television fund would be left over for county use. The fund generates about $850,000 a year and is used topay the cable administrator's salary, purchase capital equipment andprovided grant money for public access programs.

Board member Donald H. Kirkley told Ecker that if the committee was "not serving a useful purpose" now that the county has a cable administrator, it should perhaps "be disbanded and the franchise act amended accordingly."

"I welcome your advice and guidance about what to do, if anything,"Kirkley said.

Ecker said he would have the office of law review Kirkley's suggestion.

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