Council poised to OK cable TV administrator

Ex-Comcast worker's tie to company spurs advocate's warning

July 29, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council is poised to approve a new Howard County cable television administrator tonight, despite warnings from a public advocate that expecting a former Comcast Cablevision employee to operate independently of the county's largest cable provider is unrealistic.

Kathleen C. Conway, 38, of Columbia, a 14-year Comcast employee who recently left the nation's third-largest cable firm to apply for the Howard County job, has assured county officials she will be independent of her former ties, she and several council members said. A Comcast spokesman also rejected the criticism.

Nominated by County Executive James N. Robey, Conway is due to start work in the $47,000 to $63,000 position in less than two weeks, if the council approves. The job has been vacant since April 1998, when James O'Connor left. The cable administrator oversees a budget of roughly $1.2 million that pays for the county government's cable channel (70), two educational channels (71 and 72) operated by the county schools and Howard Community College, and a public access channel (73).

But Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, a Washington-based public advocacy group, testified at the council's public hearing last week that expecting a former Comcast employee to switch loyalties and become a public-interest advocate when dealing with her former employer may be expecting too much.

"It is not unusual for anyone in any career to change hats, but it is also not unusual for anyone in any career to favor those they've had historic and beneficial relationships with. This is not a judgment of character; it is an observation of human nature," she said.

This kind of situation, while not uncommon, bears close scrutiny, said Maryland Common Cause Executive Director Kathleen S. Skullney, who said the council should have interviewed Conway in public. "Any time you get something quasi-public, conflict of interest has to be a serious consideration." In Maryland, she said, "insiders seem to rise to the top."

Comcast's "corporate culture" is often not helpful to local governments and the public, Riedel charged, noting that the firm has pushed the county's public channels to the numerically high end of the channel spectrum, which broadcasters contend usually discourages viewership.

"We believe in a few years Comcast will own most, if not all, of the systems in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Howard County needs a cable administrator who will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, advocate on behalf of the well-being of its citizens," she testified.

Conway and her council supporters said later she will do exactly that, having discussed the point in the council's private interviews with her.

"That was a job, and I served them very well," she said about her time at Comcast. "Now I'm going on to another job where my responsibility will be to protect the interests of Howard County.

"I know the county. I'm ready for a new challenge. I will be a faithful servant to the county," she said.

Her view was backed strongly by Robey and council members from both political parties.

"The bottom line is, she serves at my pleasure. I'm not concerned," Robey said, noting that any competent nominee needs experience in the field.

"I've known Kathy for a long time," said west Columbia Democrat Mary C. Lorsung. "I have absolutely no reason to question her integrity. She knows the business better than most."

Lorsung said knowledge could be a benefit to the county, rather than a liability, because Conway knows how Comcast, with 60,000 customers in Howard, operates. Comcast also has franchises with Baltimore and Harford counties.

"I'm willing to give her that opportunity to serve. She did give us the assurances," said Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who served on the county's Cable Advisory Committee, said: "You better believe the first question asked was about coming over from Comcast. We felt pretty confident it would be a good match."

Comcast spokesman David H. Nevins rejected Riedel's criticism.

"We believe that our record over the years in Howard County and virtually everywhere else shows we are dedicated to performing in the public interest. We are extraordinarily proud of our record."

Nevins also said the company expects Conway to be "as loyal to her new employer as she has been to her last employer." He said Riedel's assertion that Comcast earns profits of 40 percent to 50 percent from Howard customers "is not accurate," though he offered no other figure. The firm doesn't calculate profits by county, he said. Besides, "we don't provide the public with a record of profitability," he added.

Comcast's franchise, which covers the eastern, most populous part of Howard County, expires in 2010. The county is scheduled to enter negotiations with Mid-Atlantic Cable, which serves 3,000 western county customers, next year.

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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