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As cable franchise negotiations continue, Shoreview and St. Anthony stake their claims
Ahead of a June 20 deadline on which date the 10 cities that make up the North Suburban Communications Commission (NSCC) must preliminarily accept or deny a new franchise proposal from Comcast, Shoreview is waiting out the clock on its decision while St. Anthony has already denied the offer.
After Shoreview’s commissioner and city council member Ady Wickstrom cast the single vote against preliminary denial at a May 15 NSCC meeting, the city indicated that it would consider withdrawing from NSCC to go it alone in negotiations with Comcast to avoid litigation, which is likely if the cities deny the offer.
Shoreview appeared poised to leave the commission prior to its June 2 city council meeting, which included a motion to withdraw on the meeting agenda. However, the city eased back from making the move after Mayor Sandy Martin said, following a meeting that day with other mayors and city managers from commission cities, that the cities, beyond the commission, are open to further negotiations with Comcast.
“We are on a path to maybe accomplish some really good things,” Martin said, before adding that she would propose to table the withdrawal motion indefinitely.
NSCC’s sticking point with the cable franchise deal Comcast has proposed, among other reasons, comes down to the the public, education and government access (PEG) fees the cable company collects from customers and gives to the North Suburban Access Corporation (NSAC), which the commission oversees. NSAC runs CTV 15 and helps distribute other cable access channels for the 10 cities in the commission.
The current Comcast offer would dramatically cut the amount of money NSAC receives in PEG funding, in part because of a Federal Communications Commission ruling, which said cable companies, through PEG fees, are only responsible for capital costs and not the operating costs of the cable access entities to which it gives funds; the current expiring franchise agreement allows for both.
Comcast contends the reduction in PEG fees is in line with its legal obligation and would reduce cable customers’ bills while getting NSAC’s PEG receipts more in line with other city agreements it has in the Metro. NSAC contends the reduction in fees will bankrupt CTV and greatly curtail the organization’s ability to serve the community.
Shoreview is keeping its options open, taking issue with the governance of the commission (many council members expressed a desire for a new model), the commission’s caustic relationship with Comcast and the changing ways in which viewers consume public access programming, such as web-streaming, which may not necessitate the same funding in the future.
If Shoreview exited the commission, city manager Terry Schwerm stressed that the city would likely lose its “aggressive presence” on public access programing, as well as also likely having to buy its own equipment and deal with reduced oversight of the franchise and bargaining power.
Beyond the June 20 deadline for preliminary franchise acceptance or denial, Shoreview would need to file its intent to leave the commission by October 15. Mike Bradley, a lawyer representing NSCC in the negotiations with Comcast, said any litigation between the two parties would likely take place after that date.
The council eventually decided to table the motion to withdraw until an August 18 meeting in the hope that negotiations between Comcast and the cities yields results.
Council member Emy Johnson said she had the “utmost faith” in the meeting of mayors the city convened earlier that day, and that the approach was “in typical Shoreview fashion.”
St. Anthony denies
At its May 27 city council meeting, St. Anthony, preliminarily denied Comcast’s franchise agreement proposal, but not without airing some grievances about the cable company.
Mayor Jerry Faust recused himself from discussion of the motion to deny the franchise, citing Comcast stock he owns, and took a seat in the back of the council chambers after making council member Jim Roth mayor pro-tem through the end of that section of the meeting.
Following a fairly staid exchange with CTV executive director Cor Wilson regarding the franchise negotiations, Roth addressed Tony Mendoza, a lawyer representing Comcast, and took him to task regarding perceived shortcomings in Comcast’s franchise performance, such as fulfilling a requirement to establish cable connections at both of the city’s municipal liquor stores; according to Roth, only one store is connected.
“You guys haven’t done jack anything, and that’s my first comment,” Roth said, before sounding off on the cost of his cable bill, and the cable company’s perceived upper hand, saying, “We seem like a minnow in the ocean with Comcast.”
Before a unanimous 4-0 vote to preliminarily deny the franchise proposal, council member Randy Stille weighed in, saying a broader discussion of the issue should take place at a council work session.
“The public has heard a lot tonight and it’s probably all gone over their heads,” Stille said.
Council member Hal Gray said the current way public access is funded is unsustainable and highlighted the irony of how the video of the city council meeting, at which he was speaking, will be disseminated.
Said Gray, “Comcast was able to use PEG fees to deliver its message [from the meeting] tonight.”
Mike Munzenrider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.