Friday, May 23, 2008

Drake recommends caution on policy changes at City 16

Chairman says don’t change the channel
BY MARSHA L. MELNICHAK Northwest Arkansas Times
Posted on Friday, May 23, 2008

A cessation in planning for two forum discussions on Fayetteville’s Government Channel opens the door to too much government control of that channel’s content, the chairman of the Telecommunications Board said Thursday.
“ I don’t think (city staff ) realize they can create a situation in which some loony tunes administration might come in here which might want to just gut the Government Channel of all kinds of things, ” Richard Drake said as he chaired the panel’s regular meeting at the City Administration Building.
Planning for forums about the location of Fayetteville High School and the future of the Walton Arts Center were stopped as Mayor Dan Coody’s administration and City Attorney Kit Williams expressed discomfort with the Government Channel’s use for such televised issuesbased discussions in effect being sponsored by the city.
For Drake and others, it is the role and function of the Government Channel that is in question, and concerns about city government influencing Government Channel programming.
“ The Telecom Board was specifically set up to buffer the channels from the city, ” said Jim Bemis of Fayetteville, a frequent board meeting visitor and telecommunications advocate.
Ironically, it was on an April 30 forum on the Government Channel that City Attorney Kit Williams identified issues about what he sees as the illegality of public forums being produced on the Government Channel. Such forums to discuss issues ranging from the state’s Freedom of Information Act to contemporary community issues have taken place for years.
Susan Thomas, the city’s public information officer and policy advisor, explained at the Telecommunications Board meeting Thursday that plans for all issue forums were stopped following Williams ’ advice.
“ So we’ve actually canceled these without waiting for any sort of policy decision from the Telecom Board ?” Drake asked Thomas.
“ It was very clear to me, from the city attorney, that we were doing something we knew we shouldn’t do, and we should stop immediately, ” answered Thomas.
She said the forums weren’t canceled, but the planning was stopped. It is up to the City Council to make the policy decision about the forums, Thomas said.
Drake argued that Wil- liams and Thomas had set policy by stopping the planning because that in turn stopped the forums.
“ They’re creating a situation, they’re making it possible for any city administration coming down the road to change the rules as it suits them, ” Drake said.
Bemis brought a list of complaints and requests related to the forums to Telecom meeting. He was among those who requested the forum on issues forums, and one of his requests Thursday was to continue discussion of those issues and questions. Another was to allow production of the two forums that were in the planning stages.
He also said he wants a public discussion about restaffing for the Public Education and Government channels, including further efforts related to changing policies and procedures. The city recently fired Cable Administrator Marvin Hilton.
Once he gets a formal response, he intends to appeal the decision to stop the forums to the City Council.
Before that, Ward 2 ’s Nancy Allen has asked that the topic be discussed at the next council agenda session. In the meantime, Drake said he has plans to start requesting that past issue forums be played on the Government Channel.
Thomas gave the cable administrator’s report and indicated she would be doing so in the future.
In the past, that report was given by Hilton.
Thomas said that while no final decisions had been made, it was likely that employee Ric Delahoussaye will be named immediate supervisor and will handle day-to-day operations of the cable administration office.
She said she is taking employees comments to heart and taking a team approach to restructuring the duties of the department.
Thomas said they will not refill Hilton’s position for at least the remainder of this year.
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