Wednesday, July 9, 2008

City Council discusses forums on Government Channel in agenda-setting session for Jan. 15 meeting

What’s the limits? : City officials in search of concrete rules for channel programming
BY KATE WARD Northwest Arkansas Times
Posted on Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Fayetteville aldermen don’t want to monitor the content of the city’s Government Channel.

“ That’s what we want (the Telecommunications Board ) to do, ” Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody said Tuesday during a Fayetteville City Council agenda setting session at the City Administration Building. “ We want them to spell out the language of a limited forum. That’s the core problem. ”

At its last meeting in June, the Telecom Board recommended that the current policies and procedures be honored until new ones are accepted by the City Council.

The board also recommended changes in policy related to the ongoing question of whether forums and round-table discussions should be shown on the city’s Government Channel. Under the policy changes being recommended, any government meeting would be eligible to be televised on the Government Channel, even if the government body chooses to conduct the meeting in a round-table or forum format.

“ This policy needs to be in perpetuity, ” Coody said. “ It needs to be a policy we can finalize. ”

Members of the Telecom Board plan to make a final recommendation to the City Council in August.

Last month, Telecom Board members accused the city of violating existing policy when it halted production of forums about the location of Fayetteville High School and the future of the Walton Arts Center.

Government Channel procedure states a council member can request airing a forum. Ward 2 Alderman Nancy Allen said she requested the forums be aired, but they were both pulled from production.

“ I don’t understand why that was the appropriate thing to do, ” Allen said. “ It seems to me that the forums go for ward. The Telecom Board recommended that until they formulated their view of what they thought we should use for our guide, that we proceed the way we had in the past. ”

Susan Thomas, the city’s public information officer and policy adviser, said confusion regarding the city’s existing policy resulted in the two forums being taken off the air.

“ After the April 30 forum on forums, it was my interpretation of what a limited forum was and what the policy allows, which seems to be very limited in scope, ” she said. “ The heart of the matter here is do you want a public forum or not. If you choose to move forward with those two forums, you are making the decision to be an open forum. ”

Aldermen agreed that the Government Channel should have a limited forum for government meetings.

“ It’s your decision, ” Thomas told the City Council. “ You can create whatever channel you want to create, but understand that we have to implement that. It has to be exactly what you want to do. We don’t need to be involved in mandating what goes on a channel that protects free speech. ”

By implementing stricter guidelines, she said, content of the Government Channel wouldn’t be left to the City Council’s discretion. Public forums could still be aired on Community Access Television, she said.

“ We’ve been dealing with this since I’ve been on the City Council, and nothing has ever really been decided, ” Ward 4 Alderman Shirley Lucas said. “ What we need to do is let the Telecom Board do their job and say, ‘ OK, let’s do it by August. ’”

Ward 3 Alderman Robert Rhoads agreed, suggesting that the Telecom Board reapproach the City Council with a final policy recommendation rather than recommending policy changes for one or two specific forums.

Aldermen opted to table the issue until next month since Thomas and Lucas won’t be able to attend the meeting on Tuesday.

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