Keeping the Public in Public Access TV

Senate Bill would exempt TV stations from bidding process.

By Jennifer Smith

Years of battles to keep Akaku Maui Community Television a true vehicle for freedom of speech will soon come to a head.

The State wants to put the job of providing public access television up for bid, a process which some say could take the community out of public media.

Public access stations in Hawaii hope to find shelter in the form of legislation. If passed, Senate Bill 1789 would exempt Public, Education and Government (PEG) access television stations from going to bid.

SB 1789 passed in the Senate and now heads to the House Finance Committee.

“This is the single most important event that has happened in the last 20 years, that if successful will preserve Molokai’s Akaku operation as we know it,” former Akaku board member DeGray Vanderbilt said.

For almost two decades, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) has held contracts with PEG access stations in each Hawaiian county. “PEG Access has a broad mission that involves community building, support for local programming and involvement of all of Hawaii's diverse ethnic and cultural communities,” Milianai Trask said in a written testimony to the Senate.

In 2005 the Attorney General’s office advised the DCCA to regulate PEG stations under the state’s procurement code by creating a request for proposals (RFP). However, an abundance of protests and lawsuits filed by PEG access providers placed procurement procedures on hold and led to the development of SB 1789.

“PEG is not a commodity that should be bought or sold,” Trask said. The testimony echoes the view of hundreds of other concerned citizens who regularly enjoy programming on public access stations.

Opponents of the bill in the State Procurement Office (SPO) argue that the Hawaii Public Procurement Code should apply to PEG stations. “Open procurement procedures assure that the State obtains value, and potential vendors/contractors are treated fairly and that no preferential treatment is provided,” SPO administrator Aaron S. Fujioka said in his testimony.

However, supporters say the proposed procurement process would not be truly open to the public, and that it opens up the bid for the stations to special interests. “I can think of no PEG selection process any less "public" or more harmful to the concept of using the television medium to engage each other for the common good than the secret, inept, punative and breathtakingly destructive RFP process now being used by the DCCA and SPO,” Akaku CEO Jay April said in written testimony.

Exemption from the procurement process does not guaranteed any of the current station administrators’ jobs, April said, explaining that Akaku regularly receives audits.

“The Department does not oppose the intent of this bill because we previously requested an exemption from the Code for its PEG access services contracts,” DCCA Cable Television Administrator Clyde Sonobe said in his testimony. The department does; however, have questions and concerns if SB 1789 is passed, including how to appropriately award PEG access contracts, and how to respond to public criticism about a lack of open procedures.

“No other state in the country uses the procurement code to designate or regulate access
Organizations,” Akaku attorney Lance D. Collins said in his testimony. “Additionally, where such vital public interests are at stake, the procurement code removes significant policy deliberations and considerations away from the public eye and the public process.”

Department of Accounting and General Services Comptroller Russ K. Saito said in his testimony that previous attempts by PEG stations to receive an exemption failed because the procurement code should apply to all government contracts.

“Disappeared News” blogger Larry Geller disagrees in his testimony, noting that the funds generated for the system are different than other public funds. “The procurement of services to provide public access television services is not the same as the state buying goods and services.”

Years of scrutiny have robbed public access stations of valuable time and money, Maui resident John Bruce said in his testimony. The money allotted to the stations comes from cable television subscriber fees and does not belong to the State of Hawaii. A competitive sealed bid process by the state would take the transparent review and public input processes out of the picture, he said.

“SB 1789 would ensure that changes for PEG access would be decided in the open, before the public, and under financially reasonable conditions for PEG access,” Bruce said.

“The idea is to help nurture and grow public access television and make it independent of political pressure as much as possible,” Geller said. “These are the people's television channels, they shouldn't be subjected either to commercial or religious pressure through bidding or to political pressure through the advisory committee.”

Supporters of the bill also argue that potential bidders could not replicate the years of community building the stations have committed. “`Olelo's almost 20 years of providing PEG access services has resulted in an enormous amount of social capital that can not be financially quantified,” `Olelo Community Television CEO Keali'i Lopez said in a submitted testimony.

“If you distill the essence of our services, you will find that we exist to enable people to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Lopez said. “This is not something that can be put out to bid, or something for which performance standards can be written.”

The Senate Committee found that “While an open bid process promotes the public interest generally,” the report said, “in this instance of selecting a PEG organization, open competition would be detrimental to the public.”

“Much of the quality of PEG depends upon the perception and sensitivity of the provider to the needs and wants of the community,” the Senate Report said. “The unquantifiable intangibles of social impact would be negated in an open competition bid process, resulting in rural districts being adversely affected."

A hearing date for SB 1789 has not been scheduled. The bill needs to be heard by April 4. 48 hour notice is given for upcoming hearings.

To voice your opinion on the senate bill contact Representative Marcus R. Oshiro, by calling 1-800-468-4644 (ext. 66200 Oshiro’s office), faxing 808-586-6201, or mailing in testimony to 39th Representative District, Hawaii State Capitol, Room 306, 415 South Beretania Street, Honolulu, HI 96813.


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