Commentary

Letter to the Editor

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They Got it Right the First Time

 

Fayetteville has long boasted sole bragging rights in Arkansas for its Telecommunications Board Ordinance that originated in the Cable Board era of 1991. However, the board is now recommending a heavily revised and downsized ordinance for City Council review at its meeting Tuesday, where it merits deeper consideration. To see an example of a more insightful and far-sighted board that recommended the current ordinance in 2003, visit YouTube and search “Telecommunication Board Purposes 2004.asf.”

Unfortunately, as I see it, the downsized ordinance (see Amend Telecommunications Board) would eliminate the board’s primary purpose, which is to serve as one of the major checks and balances on Fayetteville’s three branches of government as they manage the city’s telecommunications infrastructure.

My three strongest concerns are:
• There’s no “Plan B” to take into account the rapidly evolving telecommunications media that already are replacing and transforming traditional “cable channels.” This wave of two-way, Internet-based media is already informing and enriching the Fayetteville community and global audiences by bringing both fresh opportunities and challenges to the city and NWA. In terms of high-dollar job creation, these digital tools are tremendously important game changers in city and regional development.

• The revisions strip away much of the broader telecommunications language that was added by the city council’s broadly-based ad-hoc subcommittee in 2003. That group of citizen experts, led by then-aldermen Marr and Jordan, carefully updated the ordinance to include board oversight of the city’s total telecommunications infrastructure.

• Similarly, the proposed ordinance fails to update and clarify the much-debated responsibilities for facilitating policies for the PEG channels and the related new media. The ambiguous language remains: “to facilitate creation of policies regarding facility-use, complaint/feedback practices, and other such policies regarding the use of the channels.” Unfortunately, the citizen complaint and appeal process remains untested and appears to have been relegated to the board’s newly revised administrative rules. Thus, the bottom line is that many of the decisions formerly made by the Telecom Board would, by default, now be made by city staff — potentially including decisions regarding programming on the PEG channels. The recently revised PEG channel policies make little or no mention of the roles of the Telecom Board or ordinance, which in turn, are rooted in national-level laws and regulations that now ensure their local control.
Thus, largely by default, most current telecommunications duties of the board could be assumed by Fayetteville city staff, and the remnant Telecommunications Board could soon become a relic of Fayetteville’s noble 20-year experiment in e-Democracy.

The far-sighted Board and Council Telecom Subcommittee got it right the first time.

Jim Bemis
Benton County

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