Cox-Mesa Alert Squabble Heading to Federal Court


A federal court will apparently decide a franchise dispute over a local requirement for an emergency alert system.

Cox Communications Inc. sued in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona in Phoenix on July 23, seeking a declaratory ruling to end the impasse.

Cox contends that the Phoenix suburb has full access to trigger the federal Emergency Alert System to notify residents of Maricopa County.

The city countered that its franchise requires Cox to operate and maintain a local EAS system to override all channels, including digital ones. The federal EAS-compliant system only assumes control of analog slots.

The two parties have been attempting to hash out a new 15-year franchise agreement to replace the one that expired last October.

Mesa has a second operator in Cable America, also negotiating for an extension, but the company can insert EAS warnings on all channels.

If the companies were to broadcast different messages, it could confuse the community, Cox contends.

The council voted July 8 to fine Cox $141,910 for failure to implement a local system.

Vice mayor Dennis Kavanaugh, who also serves on a National League of Cities information technology committee, has publicly said that in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, cities can't allow residents to go unprotected.

City officials have not yet demanded payment, but have said that if Cox doesn't satisfy their concerns, they'll charge a fine of $600 per day.

Cox vice president of community relations and televideo Ivan Johnson said it was unfortunate the city called a franchise issue a public-safety concern and has used it as leverage in a license renewal. That's why Cox went to court, he said.

Meanwhile, a citizen's group is hoping to get a pro-cable initiative on the local March 2004 ballot.

Citizens for Lower Taxes said it will attempt to collect 6,000 signatures to put a measure on the ballot that will keep the Mesa from implementing "cable tax increases."

The initiative would roll back franchise fees to 3% from the current 5% of revenue, bar fees on high-speed data and prevent the city from demanding free equipment and cable service. The initiative would also guarantee continued public-access channels and compel cable connections to K-12 schools.