A government meeting about Reno’s cable franchise gets too hot for television
It’s not unusual to see a committee chairman grilling a staff member at government meetings. There was, however, a surprising role reversal at the March 27 meeting of the Reno Citizens Cable Compliance Committee, when Steven Wright, Reno’s community relations director, took committee Chairman Andrew Barbano to task for his criticism of cable provider Charter Communications and for lobbying for a bill before the Nevada Legislature.
Charter’s franchise with the city ends in October. The Reno City Council formed the compliance committee last fall as part of the franchise renewal process.
Last month’s acrimonious meeting was apparently too hot for the airwaves, or cable for that matter, at least as far as city staff members were concerned. For unspecified reasons, the City Attorney’s Office impounded the tape of the meeting for review. Wright said he “would assume” the issue involved slander but wouldn’t comment further.
Wright ordered local government channel SNCAT not to broadcast the meeting, which prompted Barbano to accuse City Hall of censorship. Barbano is a Sparks Daily Tribune columnist and a widely known advocate of workers’ unions.
Deputy City Attorney Jonathan Shipman, who was at the meeting, said he didn’t personally initiate the review. He couldn’t confirm that slander or libel was the reason the broadcast was delayed. “We have some concerns about statements that were made,” Shipman said.
It should be noted that all speech during open-government meetings is legally protected. In other words, people speaking at such meetings do not have to fear losing slander or libel lawsuits.
Other sources have said the tape was held because Charter threatened to sue the city if the tape was broadcast. The chairman of the committee says it was a case of smoke and mirrors.
“They’re trying to make me the issue,” Barbano said. “I have serious questions about the integrity of the renegotiation process.”
Never one to shrink from a good quote, Barbano also made the accusation, “The reason our complaint subcommittee chair resigned is that Charter made her life miserable and stonewalled her.”
He might as well have lit a stink bomb. After he threw down the gauntlet, Charter’s government affairs liaison, Marsha Berkbigler, left the chambers, as did committee member Noel Thornsberry, who appeared to be frustrated with the belligerent tone of the proceedings.
Former committee member Jackie Inman, to whom Barbano was referring, could not be reached for comment on her recent resignation.
After more than a week of review, city attorneys released the tape for publication. The meeting will be broadcast on April 15 at 2 p.m. on SNCAT, channel 13.
Can’t we all just get along?
The conflict between the compliance board and city staff arose from differing views of the committee’s role in the franchise-renewal process.
According to city staff, the committee’s role is to offer input and advice to city counsel. Barbano and several committee members view their mandate as more than fact-finding. They see themselves as consumer advocates. The advisory committee was charged by the City Council, among other duties, to “receive and mediate unresolved customer service complaints” from cable consumers.
Committee members Barbara Stone and Karol Gorman worried that city staff was redefining the committee’s mission, since there was an item on the agenda calling for “clarification of the role of the CCCC and CCCC Chairperson.”
“I’m not understanding what’s going on and how you got involved,” Stone told Wright, who recently moved from Arizona to join Reno city staff. Wright has a background in government and the cable industry.
Another of the seven committee members, Peter Padilla, noted the conflict of interest between the city and Charter. He suggested that the city has a monetary interest in the franchise renewal process, since a 5 percent fee from cable customers funds local public-access programming, while the committee is an unbiased entity.
“It’s a disservice to have [the committee] up here and to have [it] shackled,” Padilla said.
There are other complaints against the committee. For example, city staff doesn’t want committee members to have direct contact with consumers. This, again, runs counter to the views of committee members that their primary responsibility is to support area cable users.
At one point, Gorman asked, “If we’re not supposed to take complaints, then why did staff allow a complaint subcommittee to be formed?”
“I didn’t understand this would happen,” Wright answered.
“Then you didn’t understand English,” Barbano said.
Gorman said that “to receive and mediate” unresolved complaints was a clear directive from the City Council.
“You’re trying to strangle Mr. Barbano because he can do things that you can’t get done,” Stone told Wright.
Again, Barbano seemed at the center of the dispute, in part because his Internet site, www.barbanomedia.com/tv.html, contains information about the cable compliance committee, which alarmed some city staffers.
“We’re concerned there’s an unofficial Web site not authorized by council,” Shipman said.
“I don’t need your authority to do it,” Barbano countered. A disclaimer explains it’s not an official site, he said.
Barbano and Stone were also criticized for registering as lobbyists for the city when they testified in favor of cable legislation. They have the right to lobby as citizens, Shipman said, not as representatives of the committee or the city.
The Action Audits report
The city of Reno paid Action Audits of North Carolina $54,000 to produce a “needs assessment report” as part of the franchise renegotiation process. The report, which came out in January, is critical of Charter, noting the company’s “inability to answer its telephones, the often ‘surly’ and ‘aggressive’ attitude of customer service representatives, [its] inability to provide accurate bills, levy credit due, or follow through with promised credits.”
On the other hand, the Action Audits report also praises Charter’s “bold attempts to bring to Reno a state-of-the-art broadband infrastructure” but says that these efforts suffer “under the weight of a corporate parent saddled with serious financial problems.”
Charter, owned almost exclusively by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has $14 billion in assets and $17 to $20 billion in debt. Its stock trades for about $.90 per share, down from a 52-week high of more than $13.
Critics of the report, such as Charter spokesperson Berkbigler, dispute its methodology.
Berkbigler downplays the report’s credibility, saying it was created during a system upgrade that required blackouts and caused an unusually high number of complaints.
In addition, a software glitch at Charter’s telephone center, now fixed, resulted in subpar customer service. In 2002, Charter recorded 111 complaints from 42,000 Reno customers. Charter took over the local system in August 2001.
The city’s sustained failure to monitor the current 15-year franchise agreement has contributed to the uncertainty of the role of the compliance committee. The city had no system for tracking complaints, a problem it is addressing, according to city of Reno Chief-of-Staff Leann McElroy. A new Citizens Service Center will be operational in June.
Barbano and Stone want to track current complaints as part of the franchise renewal process. Charter has no legal obligation to provide the committee information, and the committee has no legal authority to demand documents.
“We would like you to hear complaints as a body, not individually,” McElroy said. She added that the work of the committee did not involve franchise renegotiation.
Roots of the problem
One reason the issue has become so vitriolic now is because there are three bills before the Nevada Legislature that would affect the cable company and possibly cable company users. Those are in addition to the franchise contract talks.
Barbano has championed one bill, SB 278, calling it a negotiating tool against the cable company. Charter does not support the bill, since it would give an unfair advantage to government-operated cable systems and puts the franchise on less stable ground.
Basically, SB 278 would allow cities of any size to purchase and operate their own cable systems.
The original Reno cable franchise allowed city government to take over in the case of franchise violations, but that agreement was overridden by a 1997 state law, sponsored by the cable industry, that installed population caps. That law prevented counties with more than 50,000 residents or cities with 25,000 residents from operating television systems.
SB 278 would remove these limits. SB 278 and two related bills favored by the cable companies, SB 429 and SB 492, will likely be acted on in the Legislature this week.