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NSCC denies Comcast franchise proposal, but not without surprises
Shoreview considers leaving cable commission; open to negotiating with Comcast on its own
The North Suburban Communications Commission held a special meeting Thursday, May 15, convening implicitly to reject a new Comcast cable franchise proposal after a sub-committee voted just two days prior to recommend the denial. However, the meeting did not conclude without surprises, despite being based on a foregone conclusion.
Consultants hired by NSCC outlined the commission’s objections to the proposal, saying that Comcast did not consult a wide enough audience during its preparation of the offer.
Further, the consultants said Comcast overestimated the robustness of the CTV’s finances. CTV is a non-profit organization that provides public access community television to 10 suburban cities.
And most problematic in the commission’s eyes is a cut in public, education and government (PEG) funding.
In the current agreement, Comcast charges subscribers $4.15, a PEG fee that funds CTV. Comcast’s proposed franchise agreement would reduce the PEG fee to 44 cents, a move which NSCC contends would bankrupt CTV.
Now, the franchise impasse will likely be decided in court.
While the commission vote was nearly unanimous to deny Comcast’s proposal, commissioner Ady Wickstrom of Shoreview cast the lone holdout vote against the denial.
Before voting against the denial, Wickstrom telegraphed her decision, stating that if the commission went ahead with its plan, Shoreview would consider leaving the commission.
“My city is very averse to litigation,” she stated.
Following the vote, commissioner Barb Haake of Mounds View asked Wickstrom if Shoreview intended to negotiate on its own with Comcast in order to get better PEG fees, to which Wickstrom answered, “Yes.”
“You may end up with quite expensive lawyer fees,” Haake warned.
Speaking days after the meeting, Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin said the city had not made a final decision to negotiate on its own with Comcast, and that a deal could be made outside of court.
“We’re still hopeful that they could reach an agreement in the informal process,” she said, adding that both sides need to compromise, because it’s the “grown up” thing to do.
Martin said the Shoreview city council would take up the franchise propasal issue at a June 20 council meeting.
Commission clashes with Comcast lawyer
“It would be a great surprise if this body voted to approve the proposal,” Randy Tietjen, a lawyer for Comcast, said to the commission, prior to the vote.
Tietjen said the commission was “gambling” by likely moving the negotiation to court, adding, “Your absolute control of this process is about to disappear.”
He said the commission was opaque in its decision-making process and that it ultimately would do a disservice to the communities that it serves.
While explaining her voting intentions, commissioner Gina Bauman of New Brighton took direct issue with Tietjen’s assertions, and said the commission’s process had been transparent, before setting her sights on Tietjen himself.
“It’s hard to negotiate with a personality like that,” Bauman said, and later added, “I do not like someone coming up to this podium and accusing us.”
In explaining his vote, commissioner Rick Montour of Little Canada said the people he represents view the broadcasting that CTV does in the same light as libraries and community centers, and that they would object if he started tearing those down.
Commissioner Jeff Dains of Lauderdale said the situation was at an impasse and that he welcomed the “formal process.”
“Oftentimes it takes an outside party to resolve it,” Dains said, “We need some mediation.”
In a brief moment of levity during an otherwise dour meeting, Tietjen’s cell phone rang, playing Queen’s callipygian classic, “Fat Bottom Girls;” the commission giving him a good-natured chiding for the interruption. In the lobby after the meeting, a commissioner jokingly told CTV staffers, “Start liquidating.”
The NSCC is made up of representatives from Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville, St. Anthony and Shoreview.
Mike Munzenrider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.