Wednesday, December 28, 2005

To-Do List: Appoint Television Board

Among the many decisions pushed off until after the New Year, the City Council recently declined to act on mayoral nominations for the Plainfield Cable Television Board.

The list was offered very late in the final year of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ tenure and contained at least one resume that dated back to 2003. Regardless of the past nominees and the dilatory nature of the submission, this board deserves early consideration by the new administration.

Some history: When Comcast‘s franchise was up for renewal in 1999, the city held numerous meetings to ensure the best terms. One of the city‘s demands was more local coverage and the final agreement allowed for two local origination channels.

So far, only one is up and running - Channel 74 - and even though it has a director, there is no board in place to set policy, oversee programming and report on usage of the local channel(s).

The ordinance that establishes the board also stipulates that all of the franchise fees owed to the city shall be dedicated to operation of the local channel. In the 2006 fiscal year, that amount is listed in the budget as $119,660.

Comcast spokesman Patrick MacElroy said Comcast pays 2 percent of the cable fees to the municipality and does not restrict its use. But in light of the city ordinance that dedicates its use, Councilman Ray Blanco recently questioned where the money has gone in the past four years.

Besides the issue of how best to use the franchise fees, another question is whether the city will exercise its right to hold hearings on the cable operation in 2006. MacElroy said the city has a 10-year franchise with an automatic five-year renewal, but the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) says the city has the right to begin “ascertainment” hearings in August 2006, with comments from residents on cable performance and related issues, in advance of the 2009 interim renewal.

Despite MacElroy’s assertion that the renewal is only a matter of paperwork, the BPU schedule makes it clear that citizens can have their say on the cable operation if the city wishes to hold hearings.

Another issue is the matter of payment of a $50,000 grant that was due prior to a five-year review of the cable television operation. It is unclear whether any such review took place.

The bottom line is that the city wanted all the above concessions and may or may not have failed to follow through. It is up to the new administration to exert the rights the city fought so hard for.

The cable television board is supposed to have 11 members. The mayor, a city official and three council members, a Board of Education member, a Plainfield Public Library representative and four appointed citizens are to serve on the board. Three alternates may also be appointed.

According to BPU figures, 12,056, or 68 percent, of city households have cable television. That’s a lot of stakeholders in the city’s agreement with Comcast. There must be at least four citizens willing to serve on the cable television board.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: cable, television


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