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Cable commission generates static over ‘advisor’ proposal
The latest North Suburban Communications Commission meeting July 31 became contentious, but not between Comcast and the NSCC.
This time, tension arose between a commissioner and a city manager presenting proposed changes to the commission’s joint powers agreement. The JPA, as it’s known, serves as the commission’s constitution.
The meeting’s flashpoint was an amendment to the JPA that would create a manager administrative committee. The committee, as planners described it, would help link the commission to the cities it serves -- and would take an advisory role to the commission.
Some saw the proposed committee as a challenge to NSCC’s authority.
“We sit around here and due diligence has been done by every member on this commission,” said commissioner Gina Bauman, a New Brighton city council member and the city’s representative on NSCC, to Shoreview city manager Terry Schwerm, who was answering questions about the proposal. “And because some people in your city, whatever, want to come in here and start this manager administrative committee, I think it is insulting.
“I think the point is that this body has done a dang good job and you want to come in here and start over-lording what we’ve done,” Bauman continued.
“It’s a little late, and if you’d wanted to know how things were working I think it should have been done a long time ago.”
The commission voted 9-1 to take no action on the JPA amendments. Shoreview commissioner and city council member Ady Wickstrom was the lone vote to take action.
Other amendments to the JPA would have blocked regular citizens from serving on the commission, instead requiring members to be elected officials or city administrators, along with other updates to the language of the JPA, which has been unchanged since 1990.
Two months ago, Shoreview was prepared to leave NSCC because city leaders were alarmed at the tone of negotiations with Comcast and the possibility of litigation with the cable company.
Some members of NSCC, in voting to take no action on the JPA amendments, said it was unnecessary to insert the manager administrative committee into the JPA because the commission could create it without changing its constitution.
Other members, recognizing that the commission was in a time of flux during franchise negotiations, said that previous advisory committees involved with NSCC had quietly dissolved during less exciting times.
“Things eventually get to sort of a steady state, funding is what it is, there’s not a lot of variability going on and it’s sort of on auto-pilot, so engagement [with regard to advisory committees] decreases,” Roseville Mayor and NSCC commissioner Dan Roe said.
NSCC members acknowledged at the meeting that a new cable franchise agreement would likely mean a decrease in funding -- and structural changes within the organization as a result.
NSCC will next meet Sept. 4.
Shoreview mulls exit
At its Aug. 18 city council meeting, Shoreview officials will once again consider leaving NSCC to negotiate their own cable franchise agreement with Comcast. The deadline for cities to leave the commission is Oct. 15, giving Shoreview a chance to consider staying if circumstances of the commission and in the wider negotiations change.
Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin said the way NSCC spends money, compared to other metro cable commissions, is a concern, but that Shoreview isn’t set on exiting the commission for only that reason.
“I still don’t feel comfortable with the way things are done,” Martin said. “We don’t want to leave the cable commission, we want to get these problems resolved so we can stay in the commission.”
Negotiations with Comcast
Comcast’s current franchise agreement with NSCC will expire in November and franchise negotiations are in their fourth year.
Following NSCC’s request for a formal franchise renewal proposal from Comcast and the proposal’s preliminary denial by the cities, in accordance with federal law, the matter is on its way to going before an administrative law judge.
Meanwhile, informal negotiations between lawyers representing both sides have been ongoing.
Mike Bradley, a lawyer representing NSCC, spoke at the July 31 meeting, saying that talks had slowed throughout the month of July for a number of reasons, but it was not a hindrance to negotiations.
“Conversations continue to be respectful and I remain optimistic we’ll be able to work something out informally,” Bradley said.
On top of the franchise negotiations, Comcast is in the process of divesting from the Twin Cities to lower its U.S. cable market share in order to gain Federal Communications Commission approval of its planned merger with Time Warner Cable. A new cable company called Midwest Cable will take its place.
Mike Munzenrider can be reached at email@example.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.
What’s at stake
Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville, St. Anthony and Shoreview make up the North Suburban Communications Commission, which has been mired in cable franchise renewal negotiations with Comcast for some time.
NSCC administers the area cable franchise and is a part of the North Suburban Access Corporation. NSCC receives franchise payments from Comcast as well as payments from customers, collected by Comcast, which fund cable access programming. The access corporation operates CTV15, which distributes area cable access programming.
In June, Shoreview officials nearly pulled their city out of the NSCC due to what they saw as a negative tone of negotiations and a possibility of facing Comcast in court.
Without the intervention of a last-minute meeting June 2 between mayors and city managers from the ten cities that make up NSCC, Shoreview likely would have voted to leave the commission that same day.
That meeting, organized by Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin, brought up the possibility of changes in the commission’s governance.
A list of proposed changes presented July 31 met an unreceptive NSCC.