With just months before its cable franchises are set to expire, the city of Los Angeles has altered its contract negotiation methodology.
Until this month, the city's Information Technology Agency was taking the lead on refranchising. It has held public hearings to determine community needs under the next agreements and signed a contract with the Washington, D.C., firm of Miller & Van Eaton to consult on the negotiations.
The agency then announced plans to come up with a general agreement, to be negotiated jointly by the city's operators, which include Adelphia Communications Corp., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications Inc. (Charter is a minor player here, with a Malibu Beach franchise with fewer than 200 homes).
It appeared the agreement would be developed, then presented to a citizen's advisory board — the Board of Information Technology Commissioners — which would vet the staff-designed agreements before forwarding them to a City Council committee for approval.
But the Information Technology and General Services Committee has voted to change the process, a move that irked the chairman of the BITC, attorney Henry Gradstein, enough that he resigned at the final advisory committee meeting of the year on Dec. 12. He said during the meeting that the council had left the cable oversight committee with noting to do.
The City Council committee has decided that now cable companies will submit refranchising proposals to the city clerk's office. The three committee members — councilmen Jack Weiss, Eric Garcetti and Bernard Parks — indicated the council wants to take a more active role in the renewal process.
The committee recommendation was accepted by the full council, which on Dec. 16 directed the city attorney's office to draft a resolution on the franchising procedure.
Under the rules proposed by the committee, after the operator proposals are submitted to the clerk, the City Council committee will review them for 30 days.
Copies may go to the BITC for a similar month-long review, instead of the 120-day review the advisory board had planned.
BITC members commented at their meeting that the change may "politicize" the process. The Los Angeles Times noted that the process would now be in the hands of elected officials who have been recipients of campaign donations from cable companies.
The change could further delay a process that has frequently been stalled.
During the informal negotiation window, there were wholesale changes in city government. Newly elected Mayor Jim Hahn came into office and made his own appointments, and the entire make-up of the BITC changed.
All of the city's 14 franchises would have expired this summer had the BITC not voted to extend all but those held by Adelphia until April. Adelphia's contract is month-to-month, because of its corporate bankruptcy status.
Deane Leavenworth, spokesman for Time Warner Cable in the city and president of the Los Angeles Cable Operators Association, said it wasn't appropriate to comment on the inner workings of the city, or about the individuals who may be involved eventually in renewal negotiations.
"The industry is ready, willing and able to negotiate with whomever is on the team," he said.
The changes could mean the operators would be facing Weiss, who has been a strident critic of Adelphia, the cable operator in his district.