Public utility shouldn’t keep costs private

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneAugust 27, 2013 

Tacoma Link train car displays an ad for Click Network, the cable TV provider owned by the City of Tacoma.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, 2008

The public owns the airwaves. In Tacoma it also owns a company that directly provides television service — Click Cable TV, operated by Tacoma Public Utilities.

So why can’t the owners — all of us — know what costs we’re incurring?

Click refuses to reveal what it pays to area broadcast companies for the right to air KING, KIRO, KOMO, KCPQ and KSTW, saying that to do so would divulge trade secrets that the broadcasters don’t want, well, broadcast.

In March, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ron Culpepper ruled against a News Tribune open records request for the contracts Click has with broadcasters. He supported keeping those costs secret — essentially ruling that the broadcasters get to continue calling the shots.

That might be defensible if the cable company were a private business, but it’s not. Tacoma taxpayers own it, and they should know whether they’re getting a good bang for their buck. After all, Click has raised its rates five times in the last three years, the most recent increase taking effect Aug. 1. Rates for Click’s most popular cable services have risen between 67 percent and 82 percent since 2010.

Are those increases justified by the rising cost of programming? Are the broadcasters charging Click more than other cable companies for the same programming? Folks writing ever-increasing checks for cable service might like to know that.

During a negotiation dispute with KOMO owner Fisher Communications earlier this year, Click was unable to air six of that company’s channels for weeks. Fans of “Jeopardy” howled, but so did Click General Manager Tenzin Gyaltsen. In an email to Fisher, he complained that the company had forced “unreasonable terms” on Click to end the impasse and get the ABC affiliate back on the air.

It would sure be nice to know what Click considers “unreasonable” — a cost that almost certainly is being passed on to its customers — er, owners — in the form of rate increases.

The News Tribune is appealing the rejection of its open records request, asking the state Supreme Court to review Culpepper’s ruling. Citizens have the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, and private companies shouldn’t be able to deny them that right.

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