People TV May Get Two More Years (UPDATE 1)

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(APN) ATLANTA — People TV, the non-profit organization which has managed the City of Atlanta’s public access channel for community news since at least the 1980’s, might get two more years of funding from the City, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

Last week, legislation to fund People TV for two years in the amount of 350,000 dollars, and legislation to enter into a new contract with People TV, both passed the Finance/Executive Cmte of the City Council of Atlanta.

However, the contract is largely still adverse to People TV, leaving it in a position where it is unclear how it will survive for the next four months until its first payment from the City would be received, which is no earlier than March 31, 2013; and where, because of the City’s inaction, People TV will still be stuck renting space in an expensive building, the cost of which will absorb much of the funding it would receive from the City under the current proposal.

Yet, it is an improvement over the situation described in an article just a few months ago by APN, where APN reported that People TV CEO Charlotte Engel was preparing to dissolve the corporation

The Full Council will consider both pieces of legislation tomorrow, Monday, December 03, 2012.  

The funding legislation is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Natalyn Archibong (District 5) and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large).  The contract legislation is co-sponsored by Archibong, Willis, and Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large).

APN previously reported that People TV, without funding and without a contract with the City, was preparing to dissolve as a corporation.

However, while People TV under Engel was literally winding down, a new group of Board Members were appointed to People TV, which allowed the organization to have a quorum and thus conduct business.

These Board Members including James Bond, an uncle of of Councilman Bond; Maynard Eaton, a veteran Black journalist in Atlanta; and Dr. Johnny Wilson, a professor of Political Science at Clark Atlanta University, who were not in support of dissolving the corporation, even without a contract or funding.

“I… strongly believe in public access television as one of our city’s most critical resources for public awareness and public engagement for the critical issues and public policy vetting needed for a viable democratic process in our city, where all of Atlanta’s communities have the opportunity to participate fully in that process,” Eaton wrote in an email to APN on August 14, 2012.

How and where and when we get there, as a city, with People TV, is an adventure I am willing to explore whole-heartedly at this time in our city’s history,” Eaton wrote.

With my appointment, Dr. Johnny Wilson’s appointment, and Mr. James Bond’s appointment to the Board of People TV, three vocal voices of advocacy for a vibrant People TV, the possibilities are just beginning to be explored.  With committed leadership, anything is possible,” Eaton wrote.

Other recent appointments to the Board include Angelia Newell and Freddie Styles, although, according to James Bond, President of the Board, the Board has not been able to get in touch with Mr. Styles since his appointment on October 01, 2012.

Appointments to the Board of Directors had been a major issue for People TV, seeing as how its current contract with the City requires at least seven Members, where five members were needed for a quorum.

For various reasons, including resignations of appointed members in the past, the Board had numerous vacancies that needed to be filled, and it could not operate without those vacancies being filled due to the unmet quorum requirements.  However, the Mayor and Council, who were responsible for making several appointments, did not make them in a timely manner, and the Board did not meet for at least two years until only in recent months.

During that time, Engel operated as CEO without literally any Board oversight or direction.

The existing Board Members, although not a quorum, met for the first time in August 2012, according to Bond.

There are currently eight Board Members, including Bond; Eaton; Newell; Styles; and Wilson; in addition to Adrian Coleman, a former People TV producer; Cassandra Kirk; and Sidney Robbins.  Kirk and Robbins are the only Board Members who are not new to the Board.

Coleman has been active in advocating for People TV at City Council meetings for the last two years.

However, when a People TV producer, Karen Denise Anderson, wanted to join the Board of Directors, Engel requested an opinion from the Board of Ethics of the City of Atlanta on whether such an appointment to the Board of Directors of People TV would present a conflict of interest seeing as how Anderson was a producer for People TV.

The Board of Ethics, in its only ruling issued in the year 2012, issued the following opinion: “A local producer has a personal interest in People TV arising from her position as a paying  member who regularly uses the facilities and equipment and seeks to have programs aired on public access channels.  Based on that personal interest, she is disqualified from serving on the People TV Board because a potential conflict exists and recusal in not a viable option.”

However, Coleman is able to serve on the Board because Coleman is no longer a producer at People TV.  The Board, now having a quorum, appointed Coleman, so her appointment did not go before the City of Atlanta.

APN has uncovered that all that time that the Board was not functioning due to lack of members, the remaining Board Members, even without a quorum, could have filled vacancies created as a result of unexpired terms, according to its by-laws.

A copy of the People TV by-laws dated March 16, 2010, obtained by APN from Engel, states: “SECTION 10.  Vacancies.  Any vacancy occurring in the Board of Directors and any Directorship to be filled by reason of an increase in the number of Directors may be filled by the affirmative vote of a majority of the remaining Directors, though less than a quorum of the Board of Directors.  A Director elected to fill a vacancy shall be elected for the unexpired term,” the By-Laws state.

APN asked Engel in an email dated August 17, 2012, “Do you concur with my reading of Section 10?  If so, why haven’t the remaining Board Members appointed new members to create the quorum?”

Engel, who has always replied to APN emails, apparently chose not to reply to that one.

Meanwhile, outreach to the City continued.  On September 27, 2012, James Bond sent a letter to Mayor Kasim Reed requesting a meeting regarding the future of People TV, seeing as how the contract was about to expire and the funding was running out, putting both People TV and the public access channel itself in jeopardy.

That is, the City’s franchise agreement with Comcast, the cable television provider, requires the City to provide at least fifteen hours of original, nonduplicative programming per month per public access channel in order for it to keep each respective channel.  

The City has already lost one of its channels that had been previously used by the Fire Department because the Department failed to provide enough original programming to satisfy the contract with Comcast.

But the City has no apparent alternative plan to provide programming for the channel currently run by People TV; therefore, if the City does not approve the new People TV contract, it is in imminent danger of losing yet another public access channel.

Bond said he did not meet with the Mayor, but with administrative staff.  “They had a team of negotiators that I worked with on this new contract,” Bond said.

The current legislation came as a result of these negotiations.

The current legislation, while providing some funding for the station, is largely adverse to People TV overall, according to Bond.  First, the funding is not set to begin until March 31, 2013, and it is not immediately clear how People TV will operate in the meantime.

“We’re tied to this lease, which is taking fifty percent of our money,” Bond said.

People TV currently rents an expensive studio and office space in West Midtown; however, it cannot move because a large piece of City equipment called “the playback” is located there, and the City will not move its equipment.  Even if People TV could afford to move the City’s equipment–at an estimated cost of 18,000 dollars–it is not People TV’s equipment to move.

Bond would prefer for People TV to move to a rent-free space.  He says most People TV producers produce their shows off-site and then use the playback to get them on the air, noting that in this day and age, most people can create videos on their cell phones.

“They only create seven programs a year in that studio,” Bond said.

Therefore, People TV will have no choice but to renew its current lease, even though it is not clear how it will pay for January, February, and March 2013, prior to the next scheduled payment.

The proposed contract also requires total restructuring by the organization, including letting go all staff and hiring new staff; that People TV seek grants; and that People TV announces fundraising events.

In addition, the proposed contract requires that People TV provide quarterly financial reporting to the City, or risk termination of the contract.

Chairwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) of Finance/Executive Cmte has recommended that public access television be open to competitive bid for management beyond 2014, when the currently proposed new contract with People TV would expire.

As previously reported by APN, the current crisis has its roots in the City’s most recent franchising agreement with Comcast, where, unlike previous years, Comcast did not agree to provide annual funding to People TV past 2011.  Comcast provided a total of 500,000 dollars to People TV, through the City, during the years 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Last year, People TV was facing a similar crisis of lack of funding, and as previously reported by APN at that time, in December 2011, the Council approved a one-time payment of 180,000 dollars which has kept People TV afloat for the last twelve months.

One of the reasons the City’s most recent franchising agreement with Comcast was not as favorable as previous agreements is that the Georgia Legislature enacted legislation five years ago that made it possible for Comcast to enter into franchising agreements with the State of Georgia, instead of local cities and counties.  

This had given Comcast the upper hand in negotiating with the City, although one source said that under the Mayor Shirley Franklin administration, the City was more than happy to accept a franchising agreement without ongoing funding for People TV, and had in fact warned People TV producers that the organization would be out of business within two years.

(END/2012)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Coleman had previously been considered for a position on the Board of Directors of People TV and that Engel sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Office regarding Coleman’s possible appointment. According to an email from Coleman, the opinion was sought after Karen Denise Anderson, another producer, expressed interest in serving on the Board.

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