“See what you can get,” said Asheville City Attorney Bob Oast on March 3.
He was summarizing City Council’s directive to staff: Take our top issues on the proposed cable franchise with InterMedia back to the negotiating table.
“We’re suggesting that staff go back and tweak this,” said Council member O.T. Tomes.
After weeks of discussion on the proposed agreement, Tomes and his fellow Council members came up with a list of their main objections to the current franchise proposal.
In an informal voice tally on almost 15 major concerns that have arisen during the past two months, Council members found they are most concerned about the time span of the proposed agreement.
InterMedia has suggested that the new franchise run for 17 years. The cable company, which is investing about $14 million to rebuild the Asheville cable system, has argued that it needs the long-term agreement to recoup its investment.
Throughout the recent cable meetings and hearings, Tomes has argued that 17 years is too long, given the rapid advance of technology these days. And Vice Mayor Ed Hay and Council member Earl Cobb have said the franchise period is a key ingredient in the negotiation process. Hay remarked that he would be more likely to accept the current proposal if the contract were for a shorter term.
Council member Chuck Cloninger called the duration a “threshold issue [that] would dictate Council’s direction on other issues in the franchise.”
A close second on the priority list is the plan to get InterMedia to provide Internet access to schools and libraries via its new fiber-optic cable system. InterMedia has made an oral promise to provide this service, but Council members want it in writing.
The proposed franchise-fee settlement of $150,000 was the next-highest priority. Council members said they needed further information and legal advice from Assistant City Attorney Patsy Meldrum and, on that account, went into a brief closed session. What occurred in that meeting was not disclosed.
Council members also directed staff to focus on several public-access-channel issues — particularly the amounts of funding, technical support and equipment that would be needed to operate the three new channels. Under the proposed agreement, most of these associated costs would be passed on to cable subscribers. Council members voiced concern about how high that impact would be.
Mayor Leni Sitnick protested that, by adopting this list of priorities, “we are taking a vote to renegotiate.” Sitnick said she would have preferred discussing and voting on the priority list during a formal session — which, technically, is the only time Council is allowed to vote.
But Oast responded that the priority list and any results from further talks with InterMedia “would not be binding.”
Hay said he would like to have the option of choosing between the current proposal and anything new the city staff can work out with InterMedia.
“Is the cable company interested in renegotiation?” asked Council member Barbara Field.
City Manager Jim Westbrook replied that InterMedia General Manger Joe Haight had said he was. “We’re still in the process of renegotiating. [City staff] just needs direction from Council,” Westbrook noted.
Council members gave InterMedia and staff approximately six weeks to tackle the above issues, as well as several lower-priority concerns, such as the number of sites that would be provided for the city’s institutional network.
When it comes down to any official action, Council has three choices, Sitnick summarized: approving the current proposal, denying it and postponing further negotiations until 1999, or renegotiating key issues.
Hay observed, “It looks like we’re headed toward not approving this [current] proposal.”
Fix this room, please
The truth is out: Asheville City Council members don’t think much of the conference-room renovations at City Hall.
Last year, the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson paid at least $30,000 to fix up the previously unused room. The Water Authority bought new furniture, two high-tech viewing monitors, a microphone and speaker system, and an overhead projector screen.
But as Council members met there for their March 3 work session, they voiced a little dismay over the work.
During past meetings, the podium microphone has tended to spontaneously turn off and on; during this meeting, it stayed on — but with a whining noise that sounded like a model airplane, as one city staff member observed.
“I want to know what the statute of limitations is on this microphone,” said Council member Chuck Cloninger, laughing.
His comment brought out everyone’s rather amused frustration with the recurring sound-system problems in the room. “Perhaps we should ask the Water Authority to fix their sound system,” Field suggested.
Then Hay admitted that he is unhappy with the whole arrangement: “Look at these unused TV monitors,” he said, pointing to the 3-foot-high wooden cabinets that house them. The monitors and cabinets nearly block the view between the audience and Council members. “Can’t we just toss them out and start all over?” Hay asked.
“Actually, what really bugs me in this room [is] that there are 14 different types of wood — and none of them match,” Field remarked, looking at the mix of furniture and wall paneling.
Sitnick, who gets light shined directly into her eyes whenever the overhead projector is turned on, asked only, “Any other interior-decorating comments?”
Hearing none, she redirected Council’s attention to more official business.