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Communication breakdown?

West Linn seeks new cable access agreement that could put Willamette Falls Media Center facility at risk
by: VERN UYETAKE Melody Ashford is the Willamette Falls Media Center’s (WFMC) station manager, which is currently owned by the cities of West Linn and Oregon City, but West Linn is seeking a new cable agreement with Metropolitan Area Communications Commission (MACC).

After several years of citing problems and concerns, the West Linn City Council voted to begin negotiating with a new cable access provider during its Sept. 26 meeting.

The city of West Linn describes the move as a fiscal and management decision, but staff at the Willamette Falls Media Center (WFMC) says it is a personality conflict.

West Linn co-owns WFMC with Oregon City through an agreement devised in the 1980s. Both cities jointly share the public access facility located in Oregon City where public, education and government (PEG) shows are created, edited and aired on cable channels 30 and 23. WFMC is governed by the Clackamas Cable Advisory Board (CCAB), which is composed of three volunteers from West Linn and three volunteers from Oregon City.

The media center is funded through franchise money the cities receive in exchange for granting right-of-way to cable provider Comcast.

Under its agreement with Comcast, the city receives 5 percent of revenue from all West Linn Comcast subscribers, or about $375,000 a year. Of that, 24 percent, or $90,000, is budgeted to WFMC for public access, and the remaining $285,000 the city dedicates to its public safety fund.

The city also received three past lump payments from Comcast for PEG capital projects totalling $661,000.

However, the city's contract with Comcast expired in 2007 its the two-year extension expired in 2009. Since that time, the city has failed to negotiate a new contract with Comcast and has not received any PEG money since 2007.

Because the city is acting on its own, its staff said it has no power or influence over Comcast without investing deeply with lawyers.

'We can't even get our calls answered,' said Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt. 'We just have no power.'

By continuing with the status quo, the city will remain at a stalemate with Comcast and the media center risks running into a deficit because both Oregon City and West Linn have reduced their funding to the center.

If the city opts to move to a different cable access provider, the future of WFMC is in question, as West Linn will pull out of its agreement with Oregon City - a decision that needs to be made by Dec. 31, according to the contract.

Will West Linn get a better deal from MACC?

This is where MACC comes in.

The Metropolitan Area Communications Commission is a large conglomerate that provides franchise management as well as PEG services. Fourteen cities now have contracts with MACC, which means more cable subscribers and more influence over Comcast.

Also, Wyatt said this week that Wilsonville is considering moving to MACC, and Happy Valley has announced its intentions to switch to MACC.

West Linn officials think the city will get a better deal and more money from Comcast if they join MACC and let the organization negotiate a new contract.

'We have a sense the things we want will be much more likely if we are combined with MACC than if we are on our own,' Wyatt said.

The cost of contracting with MACC is about $5,000 less than what the city now pays to WFMC.

The move toward MACC is not sudden. Ties have been strained between Oregon City, West Linn and WFMC for a number of years.

Since 2007, West Linn city staff has expressed concern about the financial and operational management of WFMC. Last spring, the center was temporarily shut down because of scrutiny of its budget and spending. No wrongdoings or mismanagement were found, but that didn't satisfy some officials' concerns.

'We wanted them to operate like how we operate,' Wyatt said, listing documentation the city would like the media center to produce: an easy-to-read budget, an annual audit or fiscal review, a report on capital spending, a long-range plan.

'That's a straw man they've been using for a long time,' said Oregon City resident Dan Holladay, chairman of the media center's advisory board. 'There's never been any mismanagement, never any misdeeds. Every nickel is accounted for.

'It's really about personality issues between the city manager and the assistant city manager (in West Linn) and WFMC,' said Holladay. 'There's a contingent of staff in West Linn who really don't care about public access.'

West Linn City Councilor Mike Jones said, 'This issue has existed for years. I would say councils have been negligent in their duties since 2007.'

Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley attended the Monday council meeting in West Linn. He expressed concern about the location of MACC's studio and the financial hardship West Linn's switch would make on WFMC.

Service change means new studio

In the switch to MACC, residents may notice a few changes. The city will no longer have its own dedicated PEG channels, but will share with all MACC contractors. Also, MACC's PEG studio, located in Beaverton, is much smaller and farther away.

West Linn officials contend that, while they do care about public access, the media studio is just a small portion of the franchise.

'It's financial,' said CCAB member Phil Bransom of West Linn. 'They're strictly looking at it from a dollar perspective. Right now, MACC is the attractive blind date.'

At the same time, he said, 'Change happens. Maybe there's something better down the road.'

Willamette Falls Media Center, in Oregon City, provides easy access to its studios and equipment. However, if West Linn contracts with MACC, residents will have to travel to Beaverton to use a studio that is smaller and shared by more people.

Currently, about 25 West Linn residents use WFMC's facilities, and more produce at home but use the center to help edit and air shows.

More than a dozen producers and studio supporters showed up at the city council meeting to share their concerns.

Ben Egland said he's been going to the media center for 10 years, since he was in high school. He was concerned about the distance he would have to travel to MACC, how busy the studio is and about how high school students would be able to use the center.

Adam Klugman said the studio keeps in line with the 'spirit of why we have local access in the first place.'

'It's all about free speech,' he said. 'That's why cable was mandated. If the studio moves to Beaverton, it might as well not exist.'

'This is my community,' Lauren Huffman said. 'This is a needed thing here. Beaverton is not my community. It would be a shame to lose community access.'

WFMC exploring options

The CCAB held an emergency meeting Sept. 23. Though the board did not have a quorum, members discussed how to approach the city and plan for the future.

Holladay, the board chairman, said the center could potentially remain open as a nonprofit that would contract with neighboring cities. He said he spoke with a consulting firm that deals with similar scenarios.

'I think there's a real possibility,' said Holladay, adding that they could offer the same services as MACC and still continue the public access side.

'We are going to find some way, working with Clackamas County, so that WFMC survives into the future,' said Holladay.

The CCAB and WFMC staff also discussed the difficulties of trying to work with West Linn.

'I personally feel it would be a relief to be done with West Linn,' said CCAB member Nancy Shearer of Oregon City. 'This is no fun. I'd just assume let them pull out.'

'It would be real nice to get to our job of serving the public,' agreed Melody Ashford, WFMC station manager. 'I'm very fond of the residents of West Linn. I want residents informed of what they are getting if they get MACC.'

If West Linn contracts with MACC, the two cities will need to create a transition process of dividing what West Linn has invested into the studio.

Negotiations begin with MACC

After some discussion and questions, West Linn City Council members voted 4-1 to start the negotiation process with MACC. Councilor Teri Cummings voted against the resolution, citing a need for more information.

'There's something critically wrong in making it less accessible,' Cummings said. 'I'm still not really that convinced.'

Jones disagreed.

'I clearly feel that we as a council should begin negotiating with MACC,' he said. 'I believe that strongly. It's just a dollar and cents issue. We're losing PEG funds annually until we work this out.'

Councilor Jody Carson said she has 'some real concerns' if residents don't have access to a studio.

Mayor John Kovash said, while he understands that producers want local access, there are other concerns, such as finances, staffing and budget.

'At what expense to your fellow citizens are you asking us to subsidize them quite heavily?' Kovash asked the audience.

Councilor Jenni Tan acknowledged the complexity of the situation.

'This is a really hard decision to make,' she said. 'It is a beautiful studio. You are a wonderful group of people. I don't want it to end on a bad note.'

City staff will report to the council in a few weeks on the negotiation process with MACC.