Friday, September 12, 2008

This Is Open Government?

There are few in Fayetteville who are fans of the arrogance of Cox Communication and their expensive cable monopoly, and most think some competition would be a good idea. AT&T introduced its U-verse digital video service in Little Rock and central Arkansas last week, and it will be coming to Northwest Arkansas soon. The Fayetteville City Council approved the AT&T agreement in February 2007, prompting City Attorney Kit Williams to explain, "With this contract, AT&T is authorized to go forward full speed." Seventeen months doesn't seem like full speed for the corporate giant, but the eventual arrival of competition is probably a good thing. Other telecommunications issues continue to present problems.

No one at City Hall seemed the least bit concerned about the appearance of a rather obvious conflict of interest when Shelli Bell, an employee of AT&T, was appointed to the Telecommunications Board last year. Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse, including the Administration's uncerimonious firing of the City Cable Administrator in May.

Mrs. Bell also took the lead in working with Dr. Susan Thomas, Ph.D., Mayor Dan Coody's "public information officer," to abolish the issue forums on the Government Channel. These informative and important discussions of public affairs initiated by citizens and members of the City Council are no more, and our community's public dialogue is less vibrant as a result.

Now Mrs. Bell, who nominated herself to replace Richard Drake as Chair, is trying to limit public input at meetings of the Telecommunication Board. This week she prepared an agenda for the September 18th meeting and submitted it to Dr. Susan Thomas, Ph.D. that proposes to reduce citizen participation by "limiting public comment per person per agenda item" and "limiting public comment for this agenda item and excluding previously discussed topics." This follows the decision to take the Telecommunications Board Forum off of the City's webpage, where it was open to the public to view and read, to a Google Group, raising questions about compliance with the notice and open meeting requirements of the FOIA.

There is no evidence that Mrs. Bell has torpedoed the Board's interest in moving forward with public Wi-Fi internet service around the square and the Dickson Street area. Yet, while Fayetteville has dithered since last expressing interest in May 2007, Bentonville, Rogers, and even Gentry have made free service a reality. AT&T would, no doubt, be glad to charge for wireless internet, but enthusiasm appears lacking for any kind of public service model in downtown Fayetteville. Probably just a coincidence.

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