Friday, June 20, 2008

Telecom Board recommends change in forum policy

Telecom Board recommends changes to forum policy
BY MARSHA L. MELNICHAK Northwest Arkansas Times
Posted on Friday, June 20, 2008
The Fayetteville City Council should honor its current policy and show two “ yanked” forums, according to the Telecommunications Board.

“ We are recommending that, until new policies and procedures are accepted by the council, that the current policy and procedures be honored, ” said Shelli Bell, a board member.

The board will also recommend at least two changes in policy directly related to the ongoing question of whether forums and roundtable discussions should be shown on the city’s Government Channel.

Board Chairman Richard Drake said he will write a letter to the council telling aldermen that, in the board’s opinion, the city “ essentially violated existing policy ” when two issue forums were “ unceremoniously” halted.

In that letter, he said, he will also “ respectfully request” that the council direct city staff to proceed with production of the forums about the location of Fayetteville High School and the future of the Walton Arts Center.

“ This was all set to go, and they pulled the plug on it, ” Drake said during discussion of a complaint by Fayetteville resident Jim Bemis.

Bemis charged that the city administration has influenced Government Channel programming in violation of city policy.

Drake said he wanted to keep the motion and his letter short and to the point and just say, “ You shouldn’t have done it. ”

Government Channel procedure states that a council member can request a forum, Bemis and former cable administrator Marvin Hilton told the Telecom Board. Ward 2 Alderman Nancy Allen requested the forums.

The vote establishing the communication with the council on the issue was an apparently unanimous, simultaneous voice vote.

Board member Aubrey Shepherd said that, when the council sent the forum policy decision back to the Telecom Board, it did not speak specifically to the forums that were stopped.

He said the council “ couldn’t be expected to take a very serious look” at the question coming, as it did, at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour meeting.

Bell proposed two policy changes, both of which were accepted by the Telecom Board. Together the two changes would allow issue forums and round-table discussions on the Government Channel if they are part of a government meeting rather than a separate program or event.

“The important thing here is that it is indeed a meeting, ”Bell said, explaining that there is no reason for the Telecom Board to tell boards, commissions or government bodies how to have meetings.

With a 4-2 voice vote, the board approved recommending a policy change that, if approved by the council, will change the words “limited public forums” to “moderated public forums.”

Bell said that clarification would ensure that moderated issue forums are limited to candidate and ballot issues and ensure that the Government Channel is specific to government activity.

On the second change Bell proposed, the board seemed to accept unanimously. It makes all city government meetings the first level of priority for showing on the Government Channel (Blogger's note: Actual vote was 5-0-1, with Shepherd abstaining).

The intent is to clarify that any government meeting can be televised on the Government Channel “regardless of the format chosen by that government body,” she said.

Agreeing with City Attorney Kit Williams and Susan Thomas, public information officer and policy adviser, Bell said Government Channel programming should be limited to candidate and ballot issues. She said anything not a government meeting would be shown on the city’s public access channel to ensure that programming on the Government Channel is specific to government activity.

Under the policy changes being recommended to the council, any government meeting would be eligible to be televised on the Government Channel, even if the governmental body chooses to conduct the meeting in a round-table or forum format. The policy would not limit the type of meeting that can be televised.

Drake indicated that the board is open to other policy suggestions to take to the City Council. Those proposals will be discussed at the board’s July meeting for presentation to the council in August.

The Telecom Board meeting Thursday was not shown as a live broadcast because of technical difficulties. It will be broadcast on the Government Channel and can be viewed on the city’s Web site, www. accessfayetteville. org.

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