Thursday, March 02, 2006

Director Removed From Local Channel

The station master for Channel 74 said she was told to vacate the studio of the local channel Monday (Feb. 27, 2006).

Rebecca Williams said Personnel Director Karen Dabney came to the studio at 11:55 a.m. Monday with checks covering two weeks’ notice and terminal pay, then asked her to turn over the keys.

“I did that and left,” Williams said

Williams had been in charge of the local cable operations since June 2004, she said. No reason was given for her removal, she said, but she characterized it as “political retribution.” Williams had served as campaign manager for three City Council members who were associated with former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams when they sought political office.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs did not reply to a call to her office regarding future local cable operations. Under the tutelage of Assemblyman and Plainfield Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green, Robinson-Briggs successfully overcame McWilliams’ bid last year for a third term. She took office Jan. 1.

Two weeks ago, she placed Police Chief Edward Santiago, a McWilliams appointee, on administrative leave until completion of a lawsuit he filed over a brief suspension in 2003. Also this week, McWilliams’ public information officer, Dan Damon, is leaving city employment.

Williams said Monday’s cable programming has been running all week, and she did not know whether there was anyone replacing her. She said she was qualified for the job because she had a background in film and television work and had taught graduate courses for four years at New York University’s Tisch School of Film and Arts. Williams said her removal showed “total disregard for the residents and the First Amendment.”

The city asked for its own channel when its franchise with Comcast of the Plainfields was up in 1999. Comcast agreed to furnish equipment and training. The city receives 2 percent of the franchise fees - about $120,000 last year - and dedicated the money for station operation. A Cable Television Board , with 11 members in seven categories, was to be established to oversee the operation. Recently, three City Council members were appointed, but the other seats are unfilled.

City Council President Ray Blanco said he would not comment on any personnel matters, but as a public and commercial television consultant, he did have some views on use of the local channel.

“As we all clearly know, there is not sufficient media coverage of the city,” he said. “This means of communication has a lot of potential to provide information to residents.”

Blanco said the channel could be a resource for emergency or Homeland Security information as well.

“ I would like to see the promise of the cable station fulfilled finally,” he said.

He noted the cable ordinance provided for two channels, one for the municipality and one for schools. He said he has talked to the school board and Superintendent Paula Howard about a joint venture with the city, with the goal of enhancing students’ academic skills through various aspects of television production.

“It would be a great tool to keep kids in school, and to keep kids engaged,” he said.

Blanco said he was “sort of” interested in having City Council meetings televised, but had questions about the cost .

For the future, he said, the city should “build a real plan with people in the profession,” decide whether to partner with the high school and explore the use of free music videos of various genres to expand programming.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Channel 74, cable station