As LL first broke yesterday, the D.C. Council is embroiled in a dispute with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty over control of Channel 13—-the District’s public access channel devoted to airing council proceedings.
The dispute is rooted in last Thursday’s ‘open deposition’ of Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten—-an unorthodox proceeding, to be sure. As a deposition, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Phil Mendelson requested that the television recording not be aired on Channel 13.
Long story short, the proceeding has been aired repeatedly since. That led the D.C. Council today to take up emergency legislation saying that it has exclusive control over the content of Channel 13.
In brief comments prior to the vote, both Cheh and Mendelson said that the executive branch had exerted influence on the Office of Cable Television, and its director, Eric Richardson. Mendelson, in fact, said that Richardson “was specifically directed by the highest member of the executive branch to run this tape and run it again.”
“We are a separate branch of government,” Cheh said. “We must maintain our own integrity.”
The measure was approved by acclamation.
Afterward, Attorney General Peter Nickles handed LL a memo he’d written outlining objections to the council bill. “I am concerned that this new legislation (and its resulting affects) will hurt the cable-related interests of the District and its residents, rather than…advance these important interests.” Further, he points out that the law “would enable the Council to censor or withhold critical information from the public” and “will likely result is less-open access to Council hearings.”
In an interview, Nickles said the legislation is “very troublesome in terms of the latitude it gives the council and what it portends.”
“They can conduct investigations pursuant to their own rules, but they ought not use cable TV,” he says. “I don’t think the executive or the council should be able to use public airwaves and control what goes on those public airwaves.”
Nickles’ argument to LL is essentially that the council can do what it want regarding investigations, as long as it doesn’t involve cable TV. Asked if the council had requested OCT to not record the testimony ahead of time, Nickles says that “would be improper.”
It’s an odd argument, seeing as the council, until recently, held hearings and meetings in rooms without video recording equipment—-and considering that the dissemination and control of information is an integral part of conducting investigations. In any case, the effects may be overstated, seeing as this is the first time in over 20 years of government-run public access television that a separation-of-powers argument has arisen, at least to anyone’s memory. (That, of course, is a fact that cuts both ways: Why do you need legislation for just one incident? Or why not clarify an informal relationship that’s worked well until now?)
But Nickles may have a point here, considering the council’s fumbling attempt to rebottle the Moten genie: “I think if the council or executive wants to have a secret process, there are lots of ways to do it,” he says. “Particularly, you don’t do it after the fact.”
Nickles says his next step is to look at the District’s cable contracts, to see if the council action interferes with any provisions therein.