Thursday, July 24, 2008

Northwest Arkansas Times reports Telecom subcommittee discussion on policy

Telecommunication issues still under discussion
BY MARSHA L. MELNICHAK Northwest Arkansas Times
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2008

Most of the core issues about forums on Fayetteville’s Government Channel remain under discussion.
The Telecommunications Board Subcommittee on Government Channel Policy and Procedures met Wednesday to try to come closer to a recommendation to give the Telecom Board so the Telecom Board can prepare a recommendation for the City Council by the end of August.
“ It’s got to be done. That’s the way I feel about it, ” said Aubrey Shepherd, chairman of the subcommittee.
He said the subcommittee will certainly have a recommendation for the Telecom Board at its next meeting, although he described their position as “ terribly tentative. ”
They agreed that limited public forums should be allowed on the Government Channel.
Still open for discussion: whether citizens should be allowed to request forums, whether outside agencies should be allowed to produce forums and if there should be a fairness committee.
Subcommittee members Shepherd, Jim Bemis, former cable administrator Marvin Hilton and Angie Graves appeared to agree that forums should be allowed on the Government Channel — under certain limitations.
Bemis said making “limited public forum” part of policy instead of procedure makes the policy “almost bullet proof ” because it identifies city business.
“We need to make the point that the channel itself is a limited public forum,” Shepherd said.
He said the Government Channel cannot and should not become a traditional public forum.
Consensus on other issues was less clear for the subcommittee.
The draft recommendation proposes a fairness committee. Who should be on it and what their duties should be remain unanswered questions. If the membership and duties should be presented as a concept or in detail is still open, too.
They agreed that two council members could request a forum but remained undecided as to whether 20 citizens should be allowed to request an issue forum.
For Bemis and Hilton, that answer is an obvious “yes.”
Shepherd said he believes the majority of people will agree that the public should have input about what is on the Government Channel.
Hilton said the fairness committee could approve the limited public forums, determine if they are fair and balanced and if they fit the channel policy.
He and Bemis both expressed concern about city administration, now or in the future, limiting what is shown.
Graves disagreed.
She referred to earlier comment by City Attorney Kit Williams that when judgment calls are made, First Amendment issues arise.
“That’s part of the core of this,” said Graves. “Are we saying that the fairness committee would be the entity that makes that call on what’s pertinent or not pertinent, that judgment call that seems to be at the root of the debate?”
Graves also disagreed with Hilton and Bemis about allowing 20 citizens to request a forum.
Hilton said it was a safety valve for citizens who felt government was overlooking something.
Graves said citizens have many other ways to address government, but Shepherd countered that “it’s not that easy” for citizens to get on a city government agenda.
“ I don’t think the right is, ‘You have the right to petition the government for an issue forum on your issue.’ I think the right is you can petition your government. And you can,” she said.
The question of outside agencies producing programs also ties to the question of some individual or group having to make a judgment call, Graves said.
“Does it relate to government or does it not relate to government?” she asked.
She prefers the “black-and-white” definition in a policy previously approved by the Telecom Board. Under that policy, programming would be limited to ballot issues, candidates and items on agendas of government meetings.
The subcommittee will meet again before the next Telecom Board meeting. A date has not been set.
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