Bellingham taking tentative step toward public access television

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 9, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - City Council members have voted 6-1 to take tentative steps toward a small-scale public access television component on the city's existing government cable channel, BTV10.

At a Monday, June 9, committee session, council members considered a proposal from Mayor Kelli Linville and her staff to draw up a plan for allowing city residents to air their own programming on BTV10, instead of setting up an entire new cable channel for public access television as council members had once envisioned.

In late 2013, after the city sought proposals from community organizations interested in operating such a channel, only one proposal was submitted. That proposal, from the Center for New Media, was rejected in January 2014 after a review panel questioned whether that group was capable of managing a new cable channel and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cable franchise fee revenue that the city was planning to spend on it.

City Communications Manager Janice Keller told council members that many details will have to be ironed out before there is a specific new plan ready for council approval. Keller said starting out with public access television on a small scale would be a good way to gauge public interest. If the interest is there, public access programming could be expanded, and the city could take steps to expand educational and government programming on BTV10 in the next few years, she added.

Council member Michael Lilliquist cast the no vote. He was unhappy about the change in direction. He noted that in the past, everyone seemed to agree that city government should not be in charge of public access television.

"I'm still of the belief that city government should not be the de facto gatekeeper of what gets on the air," Lilliquist said.

He called for a renewed effort to find an independent entity to handle the job.

Council members Gene Knutson and Jack Weiss, who had worked with Linville's staff on a new approach, said they shared Lilliquist's concerns, but they want to get a public access system in place as soon as possible, although there was no estimate on how soon that might be.

"We have to start someplace," Knutson said. "This is a good beginning. It's not everything we wanted."

Council President Cathy Lehman said the public access programming could be expanded to get its own channel if the trial run on BTV10 goes well.

Linville assured Lilliquist that city officials won't act as censors, and she fully expects citizens to use their public access opportunity to air critiques of city government.

Assistant City Attorney James Erb underlined the point, saying the city will play no role in regulating the content of what gets on the channel.

"Public access means completely uncensored," Erb said. "That would mean completely uncensored, unfettered, unedited in any form."

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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