Power to the People
Expanded from the 11-20-2005 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
The Sparks Citizens Advisory Committee has often been good for laughs. Begun as the mayor's advisory committee when Bruce Breslow first came into office in the early 1990s, focus has never been its strong suit.
One former chair didn't think the citizens advisory committee should trouble the council by advising them about anything. So he didn't. A couple of years ago, another chairman criticized the council for lack of direction on what the committee was supposed to be doing.
Things have changed.
Yesterday morning, the SCAC met to hear public comment on the renewal of Charter Communications' cable franchise which expires next October. One whole Sparks citizen testified but many more had the opportunity to watch on the Sparks Centennial Channel, SNCAT cable 15.
When I walked in and saw a SNCAT producer, I knew things were moving in the right direction. The meeting was not originally scheduled for broadcast. Perhaps the Nov. 6 edition of this newspaper got some attention at city hall.
As I signed up to testify, I noted a stack of copies of a Sparks council resolution assigning the citizens committee specific duties with respect to the cable franchise.
For more than three years, I've been cajoling Sparks government to create a cable advisory committee. Now it's happened.
Committee members seem a little unsure of where to go next and need additional direction from the council and city manager. They are fortunate to have former longtime Sparks justice of the peace Larma Volk on the panel.
She mentioned after the meeting that the SCAC needs to do a lot more research before it can form a proper report to the council. Before proceeding, she said she wanted to study the council's empowering resolution.
It appears that the council has given the body some real power if they choose to use it. The council resolution states that "the SCAC will establish the necessary procedures, processes, timeline and announcements for public input both oral and written to the SCAC from residents of the City of Sparks only, appropriate City of Sparks staff, consultants (if any) hired by the City of Sparks and representatives of Charter Communications, Inc., regarding the renewal of the city's cable television franchise with Charter."
The 16-member committee will need to break into subgroups to work on specific tasks. First, they need to assign members to review what Reno, Carson City and Washoe County have done and are doing in their renewal processes. The neighboring franchises expired long before Sparks. A lot of time and money may be saved by taking advantage of what the other governments have learned and the mistakes they have made.
Reno paid $54,000 for a professional assessment only to ignore it against its own committee's advice. Both Washoe and Carson likewise brought in experts. Sparks has yet to make such a commitment. Professional assistance can pay off in a sound agreement with protections for both the cable provider, the city and the ratepayers.
Once upon a time, a big company opened a state-of-the-art factory. On grand opening day, the boss threw a switch and the plant chugged to life. Five minutes later, it shut down. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't figure out how to restart it, so they hired a topflight expert. Upon arrival, he sprinted up a long spiral stairway, asked a worker for a wrench and used it to tighten one bolt. The factory immediately returned to humming efficiency.
The consultant sent a bill for $100,000. The boss sputtered and demanded that he itemize.
"For tightening bolt, five cents. For knowing which bolt to tighten, $99,999.95."
The SCAC is already showing some knowledge of nuts and bolts. One member noted that Charter's almost nonexistent stock price is a bad sign of its financial health. He's correct.
A couple of Republican senators also pose problems against which Sparks must build in some safeguards. State Sen. Randolph Townsend of Reno and U.S. Sen. John Ensign of Gomorrah South have been introducing anti-consumer legislation. If Ensign's current corporate welfare proposal passes, it will eliminate payment of franchise fees, dooming public, educational and governmental access stations across the country. It will also remove what little regulatory power municipalities have left after the disastrous Clinton-Gore-Gingrich Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Ensign actually thinks that the 1996 giveaway didn't go far enough!
The most important issue to consumers is teeth. At the recommendation of the corporate-friendly McNeely Administration, the Reno City Council removed most of the tough enforcement policies recommended by its citizens committee.
Companies using public rights-of-way are most vulnerable at franchise renewal time. That's why they like long contracts (which incidentally make them look good to bankers when they need financing). Reno chose to sell out for 30 pieces of silver. Sparks can protect its ratepayers.
In finding Charter in wholesale noncompliance last month, Reno's committee noted that Charter doesn't even keep records on where its complaints originate. How can Sparks monitor performance if Charter doesn't know if complaints are coming from Sparks?
All Reno cared about was upfront cash. "The more years we gave them, the more money we got," said anti-consumer councilman Dave Aiazzi in endorsing a ludicrous 15-year deal last year. He added that Charter should get a long term renewal because "we owe it to the workers of Charter to know they are going to have jobs for 15 years." Three months later, Charter moved its customer service center to Vancouver the same place that doesn't differentiate between Sparks and Carson City.
Sparks has taken a major step in the right direction by charging the Citizens Advisory Committee with this responsibility. Now, the city must lead the committee by giving it specific tasks.
Energetic citizens will make the city proud. The Reno committee's members performed world class work. I was proud to serve with them. Had the citizen recommendations been followed, Reno today would have a national model cable franchise. Now, Sparks has the opportunity to learn from Reno's wholesale mistakes and create a masterpiece of fairness for the Rail City.
Be well. Raise hell.
PLAYING SURVIVOR AT CITY HALL: Reno Cable Committee survives second extermination attempt of the year
Reno Gazette-Journal 12-2-2005
GUEST EDITORIAL: Citizens still need cable TV committee
by Reno committee member Joe Dowden
Reno Gazette-Journal 11-30-2005
Fire at Will and Whack the Messenger: Dec. 1 Reno City Council agenda drips with irony, BARBWIRE 11-27-2005
OUTRAGE UPDATE: The Reno City Council, for the second time this year, schedules the execution of its Citizens Cable Compliance Committee. Time to raise hell at city hall on Dec. 1.
Sparks citizens committee holds cable franchise hearing
Daily Sparks Tribune 11-22-2005
Cable Consumers Cringe, BARBWIRE 11-13-2005
We're having a hearing, but watch what you say
Granting of Cable Franchise Irks Cox; Las Vegas Sun, 11-12-2005
Henderson cable skirmish delayed; Cox given more time to review proposal; Las Vegas Sun, 11-17-2005
...and more ammo
The history of government access TV in Las Vegas
Former Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Miller
on the Greenspun cable empire
Las Vegas Tribune, March 28, 2000
Be well. Raise hell.
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Copyright © 1996, 1997, 2005 Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a 37-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com. He served on SNCAT's founding board. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.
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