Bellingham rejects public access TV proposal

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 14, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Plans to start a public access cable television channel in Bellingham are on hold following the city's rejection of a channel proposal from Center For New Media.

Bellingham-based Center for New Media, a not-for-profit production facility and education center, was the only organization responding to the city's request for proposals to operate the new channel, using hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by fees paid by Comcast cable subscribers. The channel would be in addition to the city-controlled BTV 10 channel that offers City Council meetings and other public events.

Suzanne Blais, Center for New Media's executive director, said she was not told until about 3:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, that her group's proposal had been rejected. City Council members got the news at their 7 p.m. meeting the same day, although the matter was not mentioned on the council agenda provided to the public. Brian Heinrich, the city's executive coordinator, informed the council of the matter during the "mayor's report" portion of the agenda. Mayor Kelli Linville missed the meeting due to illness.

Blais said she had hoped that those evaluating the center's proposal would keep in mind the center's history of involvement in providing programming to the community. She said the center has trained 300 students and produced about 200 programs. Center for New Media produces Western Window, a program on BTV10, and Whatcom Sports Report, an online video report.

"We were entering into this process with a spirit of cooperation, but we were met with an adversarial process," Blais said. "We have been at the forefront of this in this community for a long, long time now. ... We feel like we are the people who are out there doing it and making it happen."

The public channel proposal originally developed by Mayor Linville and her staff provided an option for an education-only channel, in hopes of getting a proposal from Western Washington University. But council voted 5-2 to require that any operator of the new channel be required to provide public access, and university officials made it clear that they found that requirement unattractive. In other cities, public access television has resulted in programming that some viewers find offensive.

Center for New Media's proposal got some tough analysis from a group of evaluators from inside and outside City Hall, among them Dea Drake, multimedia manager for the city of Kent; Tony Perez, director of cable communications for the city of Seattle; Patricia Dunn, Whatcom Transportation Authority finance director; city IT director Marty Mulholland; and Dal Neitzel, program coordinator at BTV 10.

The evaluators mostly praised the vision and dedication of center volunteers but challenged the group's expertise in managing a complex organization and its finances.

"Do not award," Dunn wrote on her evaluation sheet. "No evidence of ability to successfully start, implement and manage this business."

Drake agreed.

"At this point this group is not ready or qualified to create a non-profit and complete a start-up within six to nine months," Drake wrote.

City Council member Jack Weiss said he's not sure what will happen next. He said he and council member Gene Knutson -designated by their colleagues to handle the issue - will meet soon with city staffers to hear their concerns about the Center For New Media's capabilities and look at options.

Among those options are working with Center for New Media to give them a chance to develop their capabilities; issuing a new request for proposals in hope of getting other bidders; or giving up on public access television for now.

"At this point I don't think anybody knows exactly where it's going to go," Weiss said.

Blais said she expects to keep pushing for the public access channel and expects to be a part of it.

"We are definitely going to be leading the way," she said.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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