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SLO City Council freezes public access funds

Channel 2 controversy culminates in unanimous vote

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The quarrel for control of Channel 2, the San Luis Obispo public access television station on Charter Cable, went before the City Council on July 3.

Though the City Council meeting lacked the explosiveness of prior meetings by the public access group's board some of which saw cussing, name-calling, water bottle tossing, and middle finger waving it did offer some fireworks as the council decided to limit the channel's funding and ordered the board to rewrite their bylaws.

The funding matter came before the City Council set against the backdrop of a change in control of the San Luis Obispo County Access board. Ousted in the change were factions supporting Ron Bearce and his family, whom critics charged had been dominating the channel's schedule. But the new board quickly attracted its own criticism for what the Bearces' supporters said was offering a narrower spectrum of programming that saw fewer minority voices and more religious-themed shows. There was also a matter of widely distributed tapes of access board meetings that seemed to show forums out of control.

At the outset of the July 3 council meeting, Mayor Dave Romero wanted to move the issue along quickly allowing only three speakers a side to share their stories of concern. But with so many people attending and hoping to speak on the matter, the council found the issue compelling enough to extend the number of speakers and what was originally thought as of a minor dilemma ended up taking up a significant portion of the meeting.

After listening to more than 20 speakers representing both sides of the issue, the council made a unanimous 5-0 vote, on a motion by Christine Mullholland, to release only a portion of the funds the current San Luis Obispo County Public Access board was seeking. The board will be granted up to $3,750 for equipment, with other funds frozen until the Council's demands are met. In addition to the limited payout, the City Council ordered the San Luis Obispo County Public Access board to revise their newly implemented bylaws and encouraged both sides to use mediation services.

"The council agreed that the bylaws are some of the most complicated and convoluted we've ever seen. The bylaws needed to be revised," Mullholland said in a later interview. "The rest of the funds would be held until they revise their bylaws and go to mediation. It was as reasonable a decision that could be made given the circumstances. Hopefully they will start the mediation process sooner rather than later and work on their bylaws."

Mullholland added that if the public access board needed financial support in an emergency situation, the city clerk, Audrey Hooper, would have the power to release further funding.

"It really was our Independence Day, not just for the producers but also for the whole community," said Ron Bearce, the unofficial leader of the anti-board faction. "They (the current board) wanted to turn the rules upside down ."

In his statement, Bearce called for community support.

"We're not trying to ban the content of the shows, we just want them to invite guests with opposing views and have more diversity," he continued.

Some minority producers attending the July 3 meeting accused the current board of bias.

"There's no way you can understand it if you're not dealing with it," said Patrick Germany, who produces the shows People Around Us and Issues in Our Community. "I hope the newly formed board takes seriously what is being said by City Council and by their membership that they need to revise their bylaws into something fair and equal to all."

Those who oppose Bearce and his supporters said they were portrayed in a pessimistic light at the meeting.

"The City Council provided yet another public forum that presented Channel 2 to the public in a very negative manner. Most, if not [all] of the accusations are false and misleading," Gail Lightfoot, current board secretary and chair of operating policies and procedures, said in an e-mail. "The actions of the council after listening to these distortions of reality are proof positive that the few are causing harm to the organization, all the other producers, and the public. We cannot permit anyone to use the channel as a battleground for personal disputes."

Lightfoot says the public access board doesn't plan to change the channel's bylaws even though the City Council ordered them to do so.

"None, whatsoever," she answered when asked what bylaws would be changed. "These bylaws are well-written and completely in line with industry standards. The problem is no one was reading or following the bylaws as they are written and, in fact, were originally written in 2003 and accepted by the founding members in 2004."

Staff Writer Kai Beech can be reached at kbeech@newtimesslo.com.

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