Letter to Mendocino’s Ad Hoc Committee on Public Access

I am the Secretary for Cache Creek Performance, a non-profit created by some former TV8 volunteers.  The purpose of Cache Creek Performance is to create a structure to contract for non-traditional public and private venues. Our focus area is Lake County and Ukiah Valley. I believe the Board of Supervisors may be interested in our idea for a relevant internet platform for all Mendo-Lake community media.

 Twenty years ago, cable TV was still in it’s prime. For rural California, it seemed that almost every home was hooked into cable TV. 

Behind the scenes, many government and volunteer hours were spent obtaining contracts for public access funding, putting broadcast studios in place, and keeping the channels operational.  Having a public access channel was the only community controlled media.  It was a boon for local businesses and community groups, while allowing local governments to educate and engage their citizens. It was the only public platform for local performers, producers and videographers. 

 But now, many customers are switching from cable to satellite for their television viewing.  Other customers are giving up their television sets altogether, using the internet to provide them with both information and entertainment. The internet doesn’t require people to schedule their lives around someone else’s schedule. We enjoy an explosion of choices that we can use at our convenience.

Local businesses, organizations and governments are less dependent on Public Access, preferring to rely on their websites to get their information out.   Budgets are tightening, and the cost of running brick and mortar operations keeps rising.   And with the loss of cable customers, Public Access viewership is dropping.   Now would seem like a good time to say ‘good-bye’ to Public Access. 

 But the internet has not been able to fully replace public access. There is no one place on the internet where someone can learn about the full range of local culture, local issues, and local activities.  Without some kind of filter, the community gets lost in the cyberspace noise.  And it is that very cyber roar that puts our community identities at risk. 

  Perhaps as important as our community identity, is our right to a public forum.  Unlike satellite TV and internet, Public Access holds a special place as a legal “designated public forum.”  It cannot be overridden by commercial or political considerations.  And, since the enactment of DIVCA, we can be pretty sure that if we allow these unique Public Access forums to fall off of our radar, we can never get them back.

 How do we keep these assets alive in this changing climate?  First, we need to rethink the type of local government contributions that would best support the transition of our public access channels to the internet.  Second, we need to work with the new technology. 

 Viable public access requires: a place for the live cable jack (ensuring a legal free speech entity for all the public); protected storage for valuable equipment; and an inclusion under the County insurance umbrella.  This way, the County could support the transformation of a vital resource by replacing PEG line items with in-kind support.  Other examples are increased municipal wi-fi locations (remember, the shift to more internet incorporation) and better access to public spaces for “on-the-fly” shooting spaces as well.  But no scary budget item for a declining technology.

 Technically, the cable links need to be nodes on an internet platform, which is essentially a beefed up blog site. WordPress Premium at $8.25 per month should be adequate. The $5 per month Vimeo option seems to be working well as the preferred video upload site for Willits. Notice I said links, plural. Each access channel and community radio in the region would need to have their own pages on the platform for basic info and links which they would administer themselves. Live streaming and podcasts should be platform centered. There are plans available for under $20 per month.

Cache Creek Performance would like to help create a relevant internet platform, including cable public access, for all Mendo-Lake community media.

 

Lake County’s Sister County

Many cites have “sister cities.” So I suppose counties can have sister counties. Political entity siblings are usually not located near each other. Its as if their drunken political bedfellow parents had a nasty separation and never wanted to see each other again. Each took one of the local mutant twins and made tracks.

So rather than speculate on who’s Lake County’s daddy, I searched for the perfect ugly sister for mutual admiration. That pit stop is Rowan County, Kentucky, population 23,655. Rowan’s newest claim to fame is that its the home of Kim Davis, the County Clerk who believed that she was an agent of God, charged with overturning that Obergefell v. Hodges heresy in accordance with some Divine plan.

Now she also took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution. No one has figured out a better last word on the Constitution than the Supreme Court. The God’s word angle doesn’t always work as evidenced by centuries of religious wars by every side, all tuned into God’s word. Maybe they’re listening to different channels. Maybe the one true God isn’t broadcasting but is in the business of making radios. Davis didn’t have to take her oath of office and its only in effect from the time she plops down at her desk to the moment her car’s seat belt clicks. She is completely free to not issue marriage licenses to gays in her prayer meetings.

Why is Rowan County the right choice to partner with Lake? Lake County has also made national news for taking absurdly ridiculous positions that fly in face of legal issues that have already been decided.

Remember the Dinius case? A sail boat bumping along at 3 to 5 knots at night was run over by a speed boat plowing through the Lake at 35 to 50 miles per hour driven by the assistant sheriff. One of the sail boat’s passengers was killed. The District Attorney decided that the person at the rudder of the sail boat, who wasn’t the captain of the boat, was criminally responsible. The case drug on for months while the public and the sailing community were outraged. According to boating law the wrong person was being charged, resulting in a not guilty verdict for Dinius. In the glare of bad publicity, the DA and sheriff weren’t reelected but the speed boat assassin won election to Clearlake City Council by a landslide.

Lake County’s development in the 20th Century was fueled by selling thousands of  “paper subdivision” lots in rugged terrain with no paved roads or services. Buyers were told the services would just come someday. Someday never came and crashing land values attracted thousands of desperate people longing to own something, no matter how mean. A clique of small minded goobers got the order of events reversed and blamed the poor residents for falling property values and erosion. Their buddies in real estate were the victims not the cause of Clear Lake’s problems. This denial did not stop Lake County from becoming a poster child for California’s State Map Act which limited paper lot subdivisions without minimum improvements.

And don’t forget my pet peeve about Lake County. Lake County has the most censored public access channel in the Country. Ever since TV8 was taken over by local government and the volunteers expelled, all political programming has been put on a very short leash. The government dominated PEG Board has never sought legal advice and insisted they had the right to create new categories of speech control over looked by the Supreme Court. The attacks on volunteers who resisted have been particularly vicious.

But what about my charge that TV8 is the MOST censored public access channel? Surely I’m exaggerating even if the censorship policies were true. What about the Deep South or the Rocky Mountain states? Censorship must be worse there. Maybe it is, but not at public access channels. Why is that? Because courts have ruled that localities are not required to have public access channels. However, if they ask for them in their cable franchise contracts they have to follow free speech and public forum law. The places that would be inclined to illegally censor our free speech rights simply do not ask for public access channels, which is not a violation of our rights.

According to a survey by the Alliance For Community Media, only 18% of cable systems have public access channels. Public access censorship can only take place in this 18% of cable systems. The other 82% are off the hook even if many of them would have violated our rights. Lake County is in the 18% of cable TV who said they would follow the law but  did not. I have not found another station in that 18% that has systematically trashed our liberties over so many years.

Why would Lake County ask for an outlet for the people’s voice if they wanted the people to just shut up? Maybe they thought free speech was a locally defined thing or something only the better sort of people were entitled to. Maybe they thought they could squeeze more free equipment from the cable company if they asked for a PEG channel, discouraging anyone outside their insider club from using it. Who knows. No one who was around at that time is talking. Rowan County doesn’t even have a PEG channel anywhere within its Jesus blessed borders.

Its this complete contempt for the legal process, substituting their views of how things ought to be, that has put Rowan and Lake Counties in the same State of Denial. Think of what they could learn from each other about applying faith based vetoes to every advance since the Dark Ages. The two counties could exchange local newspapers to read about people across the Continent who were just like them. Or maybe they could ban each other’s newspapers. It would be more fun and less work than reading.

Polishing Up Censorship

On August 12th County Counsel Anita Grant made a report to TV8’s PEG Board on their free speech policies. She briefly outlined the legal rights of PEG station users that our citizens have demanded since this government dominated board was formed 8 years ago. The PEG Board members responded to the Counsel’s report as if this information was all news to them.
 
The County Counsel emphasized that programming decisions must be “content neutral” except for several categories narrowly defined by the Supreme Court. Her source was an issue of Community Media Review. It sounded like the one I had passed around several years back. However, the County’s PEG representative, Ed Robey, has indicated in past PEG meetings his intention to bypass this restriction by using the “time place manner” legal concept to schedule offending political programs late at night when few people will see them.
 
The Counsel appeared to be giving the green light to this strategy when she assured the PEG Board that they could use the “time place manner” provision in scheduling. She did not indicate that there were legal criteria to prevent this concept from being used as censorship by another name.
 
The current crystallization of elements that must exist for time place manner to be employed is listed and explained in “”Ward v. Rock Against Racism” 1989. In this binding decision, employing time place manner must not be content specific. But also the time restriction must be narrowly tailored and serve a “significant government interest.” Once employed, the restriction must leave ample alternative means to convey the message.
 
The Counsel’s remarks did not show awareness of this requirement. When the PEG Board programmer asked, “I am allowed to accept 10 videos on 1 candidate?” Grant responded, “That’s an administrative function that’s a time place manner restriction.” She did not give an example of an administrative action that would not be a content restriction in this case.

Counsel added, “You don’t want to set up a circumstance where 1 candidate CoOps the station.” This statement was curious. How can TV8 “set up a circumstance” when the station is open to all residents on an equal basis? If by CoOp the station she meant only supporters of 1 candidate chose to use the station then she is ignoring the fact that different campaigns will choose to use different strategies. You can be sure that a campaign that draws significant contributions to run mass mailings and media ads will not be encouraging their supporters to produce campaign videos for TV8. That’s for poor people.
 
I cannot think of a single way that an administrative action designed to curtail residents from submitting candidate videos that would not fail one or more Supreme Court tests under Ward v. Rock. Historically, these tests are derived from time place manner concepts developed in “Grayned v. City of Rockford” 1972, citing examples from numerous other cases for context. These contexts almost exclusively deal with noise, blocking traffic, and denying other people the use of parks.

These are clear government interests. Providing cover for government subterfuges would be an abuse of time place and manner. One cited example is two parades cannot use the same street at the same time. This does not mean that government has the right to schedule all non Chamber of Commerce parades at 3 a.m. in the morning.

The message was that the PEG Board needed to display the right motives when impeding residents’ political activity. Setting aside “X blocks of time” was not to ghettoize the people’s voice but rather to “make sure everyone has access.” This ignores the fact that TV8 has so much dead time that they haven’t even bothered asking for the two extra channels they are entitled to. Although the Counsel gave mundane examples of normal time place manner such as “production standards” and “allocating time among competing users” she seemed to be implying that anything that the PEG Board wanted to add to the list was legitimate. It is not.

The irony of Grant quoting from the Community Media Review article was that it was written by the attorney for the Sue Buske Group. This was the firm that advised the County and Clearlake in the late 1990’s on franchise and PEG issues. Probably these consultants recommended sending out a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) to interested non profits that would get government out of the free speech business. This is how functioning PEG stations operate. Ask Ukiah. Ask Willits. Ask Fort Bragg. Ask Humboldt County. Ask Weaverville (Weaverville!!!!!).

A local government attorney’s job is to reduce the city or county’s legal exposure as much as possible. Transferring public access functions to non profits clearly does this. But trying to convince politicians on boards to defer to citizens’ civil liberties is always a waste of time in the long run.

Goober Rampage in Lake County – 10 Years Later

Anniversaries are supposed to be festive affairs. But sometimes they are a dark reminder of a dark chapter of events. Obviously those responsible would prefer that everyone kept quiet until memories became hazy.

Lake County has 5 and 10 year local anniversaries coming up that I haven’t forgotten. They are ugly examples of what happens when a few ignorant, small minded ideologues filled with hate gain political power and use it as a club against our basic civil rights.

The dates are September 24th, 2004 and December 9th, 2009 if anyone wants to mark them on their calendar or don a black robe and carry a sign. Both these days of infamy deal with Lake County’s public access channel (TV8). I was the focus of the earlier date and fought in the second battle.

In 2003 Lake County’s public access channel limped onto the cable on the strength of a provision in the city of Clearlake’s franchise agreement. Its only funding was from a fee charged to Yuba College for their distance learning program.

There was never any intention of turning TV8 into a true PEG Channel. The only regular programming was the college classes, a community bulletin board, and the Board of Supervisors meetings. Control of Lake County’s TV8 resided in the “PEG Committee”, dominated by the city of Clearlake. The City Manager chaired the Committee which included a City Councilperson and a City employee. The public was supposedly represented on the Committee by the City Manager’s crony and a fundamentalist minister.

Only the City Manager and his crony regularly put their own programs on the access channel, using equipment squeezed out of the cable channel and editing time from the City employee. Anyone else who wanted to use the access channel had to go before this star chamber for a viewing where they would issue their verdict as to whether to air the submitted video or not. I was the first member of the public to push the matter.

I had this idea for a satirical melodrama based on a local political controversy. The City employee slipped me the cheap camera no one used and let me use the editing computer when no one was around. Still, word got out to the ruling junta about what I was doing.

At the September 24, 2004 PEG Committee meeting my video was scheduled to go on trial. Normally no one but me from the public shows up to these snoozers. But on this day the room was packed with the crony’s personal goon squad who paradoxically called themselves “Positive Image for Clearlake.” They showed up and took over the meeting, howling and hooting with the Manager smiling broadly as his crony egged them on. An insurance agent stood up and denounced me at length to thunderous applause before storming out the room, coat tails flapping.

The mob’s outbursts were punctuated by the crony repeating that he wanted to “punch me out.” The pitchfork and torch wielding geriatric goober squad included three candidates for Clearlake City Council that the crony thought appropriate to endorse in the middle of a PEG meeting.

Fortunately, Cynthia Parkhill, the local newspaper editor, came to my rescue. She had gotten wind that something weird was afoot and decided to show up. As my video, Broadsided At Basshole played, she took notes and smiled. This enraged the bible thumper on the Committee who began attacking her for being amused by my work of heresy.

The next time the crony said he wanted to punch me out I suggested a chess game instead. This only earned me a look of stark hatred from the Neanderthal.

Meanwhile, the City employee who had broadcast experience, answered questions about the arcane concept of free speech and getting sued. The codger strike force of businessmen, former policemen, and City founders began to lose steam. In the end it was just the City Manager, his crony, and the preacher who voted to ban “Broadsided At Basshole” from TV8.

Later, two of the principle goobers were over heard complaining, “And the worst part is he used OUR equipment.” Such is ruling class mentality. I kinda thought it was my equipment too.