April 10, 2007

I want my MetroTV: Council subcommittee report reveals distinct pattern of negligence in Metro’s governance of cable TV

You’d think they would hide it better, but they apparently don’t care enough to make the effort.That’s the basic sentiment conveyed in a report issued quietly last month by a Metro Council subcommittee established to study the city’s cable contracts and the entity (Insight) that controls Louisville telecom under a carefully managed and supported monopoly.The subcommittee, headed by Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, found that Metro government — in particular the Metro Cable Television Commission — has been negligent in both monitoring the laws that govern cable in Louisville and watching for state and federal changes in the law that affect the city and its cable subscribers. (For instance, the 2006 Kentucky General Assembly passed a law transferring the collection of all cable and new satellite fees from city governments to the state, which then doles out the money accordingly. There was no lobbying effort against it to speak of. Now Louisville no longer controls money from the tax it imposes on cable subscribers.)“ sheds light that we have done a very poor job, the government has done a very poor job in looking at telecommunications issues and how they affect the community,” Fleming said in an interview last week, adding that he hopes the Council and the Abramson administration will “embrace it in its entirety.”Fleming’s subcommittee was created amid much cable-TV controversy. The July 2005 merger between Insight Communications and the Carlyle Group, in which the latter purchased about a 60-percent share of the telecom giant, directly violated the franchise agreement Metro holds with Insight (section 116.37 of Metro Government’s Code of Ordinances), which requires Insight to obtain Council permission for any change of control or transfer of ownership of more than 10 percent.After substantial citizen outrage, a ping-pong blame game emerged in which the Council said it was the Mayor’s responsibility and vice versa. That game is still playing out. Around the same time, two County Attorney opinions confirmed that Insight violated the ordinance. Then, in a letter dated Jan. 10 of last year and sent to then-Council president Kevin Kramer, the entire Metro Council and the County Attorney’s office, Mayor Abramson asked to let the company officially off the hook and implored the Council to offer a decision on whether to retroactively approve the $650 million buyout — that has still not happened. Meanwhile, Fleming’s subcommittee began to study the deteriorating nature of telecom regulation in Louisville. Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Mayor Abramson, said the executive branch has no power in the matter because federal laws prevail in most telecom issues.“In our view, we did our job, which was to advise the Council of our opinion on the issue,” he said Monday. “The County Attorney made their opinion known, the Council looked into the issue and took no action on that.” This report appears to be the result of the action the Council chose to take — and it clearly squares the responsibility for oversight in contracts such as Insight’s with the executive branch. Strangely, Carlton had not seen the report, nor was he aware it had been issued. Neither was Kristen Miller, chair of the Metro Cable Television Commission.The report is also highly critical of that body, which is composed of several city officials, Councilwoman Judy Green, D-1, and Insight representatives, among a few others. Metro law requires the group to meet at least annually, and they’ve only met twice in three years, the report says. As well, the commission is not properly maintaining records, is not adequately monitoring federal and state laws relating to cable and telecom, and has not held required performance reviews of Insight.As for what might happen next, the Council is currently reviewing ordinances set to expire next year, one of which is the law that established the Cable Commission. Carlton said the Mayor’s office has advised that it be eliminated, as its original purpose — to maintain consistency in cable and telecom matters between the old city and county governments — is now moot post-merger. Fleming said he hopes the report will encourage Metro Government to take a wider view on telecom issues.