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Clarke abruptly withdraws cable proposal


In an abrupt switch that perplexed her colleagues, Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke yesterday withdrew a franchise proposal for an upstart cable television company that wants to break the cable monopoly in the city.

Her move prompted the company, UltraVision LLC, to threaten to immediately back out of its $36 million proposal to become the second major cable provider in Baltimore.

"What I think it means for the city is they won't get a second cable company," said Gary I. Goldberg, president of the Dickeyville firm. "I'm going to continue in private cable."

Mrs. Clarke initially planned to introduce a bill tonight to grant UltraVision land-use rights, the first step in developing a franchise agreement as required by the city charter.

But yesterday, after she was questioned about the franchise proposal at a meeting with The Sun's editorial board, Mrs. Clarke backed off the specific agreement with UltraVision.

Instead, she plans to substitute a generic ordinance that leaves a blank for the name of the franchisee. Her argument is that the choice of a second or third cable company should be left to the Board of Estimates, the five-member panel that reviews city financial transactions.

"We know UltraVision is the only company that has come forward so far, but I think it's a valid point that looking in on the process, if there are competitors, they need to have the same chance," she said. "We've got to get some competition, but we also have to keep it open."

Her decision comes at a sensitive point as she challenges Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's bid for a third term. The political ramifications were not lost on Mr. Goldberg, who said, "I think it's unfortunate it's a political year. I think this is a bad thing she did for her campaign."

Asked why she decided to delete UltraVision's name from the ordinance, Mrs. Clarke said she had second thoughts after being asked by the editorial board why the council had settled on a specific company. Questions also were raised about the company's limited track record.

"I think [the new version] is fair enough as long as we get a second cable company," she said.

At City Hall yesterday, there were questions over whether the revised ordinance was legal. Bernard F. "Buzz" Murphy, who heads the office in charge of drafting council bills, said he believes it is a "contractual agreement" that must name a franchisee. Mr. Murphy already had prepared the first bill and is now seeking advice from the law department.

A number of council members, who were ready to co-sponsor her ordinance to signal their dissatisfaction with United Artists Cable's stronghold, were surprised.

Joseph J. DiBlasi of the 6th District called Mr. Murphy to find out whether the revised ordinance would be legal. "I would like to see competition, but if she has reservations and wants further study, she has time," he said.

Anthony J. Ambridge of the 2nd District said, "I don't understand this. It would seem to me we would need a specific franchisee for a franchise agreement."

Third District Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham and 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon were more critical.

"It's very typical of Mary Pat," Mr. Cunningham said. "It's a populist issue, she jumps on it, and she doesn't give it all the thought she deserves."

Said Ms. Dixon, "This is how she operates. It sounds like she is backing off because maybe someone said to her this might not be the way to go to name the company."

UltraVision, which is owned by Mr. Goldberg with three other investors, including his wife, Sun staff writer Patricia Meisol, is seeking the first franchise since the city awarded a nonexclusive agreement in 1984 to United Artists Cable of Baltimore, now a division of Tele-Communications Inc. The company already had submitted a proposal to Mayor Schmoke.

Financing is still be arranged.

Mr. Goldberg said he fears the process now is headed toward competitive bidding, which he estimates would cost him $250,000 to hire consultants, engineers, lobbyists and accountants -- an expense he said he was unwilling to pay. "It's a waste of money."

Nevertheless, he left the door open if Mrs. Clarke has a change of heart or another council member introduces an ordinance to grant his company a franchise.

The flare-up also could be resolved in a different fashion. Mayor Schmoke has asked his Office of Cable and Communications to develop a separate procedure to evaluate prospective cable applicant, which is nearly completed.

To offer cable service throughout the city, UltraVision needs access to public streets and rights of way. The company now supplies cable services on private property to 700 subscribers in 12 apartment and condominium buildings in the Coldspring New Town and Greenhill areas.

Mr. Goldberg's company would be competing against United Artists Cable's established base of about $45 million in annual revenue and roughly 101,000 subscribers, about half the potential base of 250,000 households. The company has come under criticism at City Hall and among subscribers, who have complained about equipment shortages and service problems.

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