Monday, February 27, 2006

Rights Gone Wrong

When I was a member of the county's communications advisory committee (CCAC) two years ago, I drafted a paper titled: Basic Rights for Cable Users in Montgomery County. I was convinced most consumers didn't know what they were entitled to or how to deal with their cable provider. For instance, I was pretty sure that few people understood the multi-stage process in the county for handling cable complaints. (To this day, few residents even know the county has a cable office.)

Shep Bostin (now CCAC chair) made the good suggestion of squeezing the paper down to a single page, folding it up, and distributing it as a brochure. You've seen similar brochures on consumers rights - for health club memberships, home repairs, apartment rentals, and so on. To us, a brochure on cable rights seemed like a pretty reasonable addition to the bunch. We discussed distributing it in libraries and so on. Shep, who works for Geeks on Call, wanted to give them to his own customers. He said that few of his customers know any of this stuff and they would appreciate the information. Shep also came up with the idea of leaving a space for a sponsor on the brochure. For example, he could make copies that said "Distributed courtesy of Geeks On Call" and his company would pick up the cost for making those copies. It would encourage distribution while saving the county's dime. A win-win idea. Everyone on the committee agreed.

Based on our discussion, I created the brochure and tried to jam enough in that it would give people the flavor of what their rights were while not being so mind-numbing as to turn people off. This was around the beginning of 2004. I distributed the draft brochure for several months of CCAC meetings and the committee recommended minor changes - making it even simpler and easier to understand. Cable Administrator Jane Lawton also requested some changes including removal of a few things that seemed to her to be a bit too aggressive. For instance, I had made a recommendation that people avoid using automatic billing. She insisted it be removed. Even though I didn't like doing it, I took it out to keep things moving. (When everyone has compromised, it's probably about right.)

Sometime around April '04, the committee voted to send it to the county attorneys for final review. So where has the brochure gone in the last two years? It's bounced around various county offices. It's regularly appeared on the CCAC agenda - almost all of the members that originally approved it are gone, so new ones passing through have to keep being educated about it. And it again appeared on the agenda two weeks ago when a representative from the Cable Office gave yet another briefing on how the brochure remained mired in our county government. The latest status is that the county lawyers want the committee to drop it. According to the lawyers....
  • Informing the public is outside the charter of the advisory committee.
  • The county could be sued for statements in the brochure.
Yes, the county could be sued - after all, anyone can sue anyone - but it's hard to imagine the county losing. Clearly, the lawyers just don't see enough of an upside to take even the slightest risk. (Why stick our necks out for citizens? Our job is to protect the county government!) The CCAC spent yet another 40 minutes of its time during the last meeting discussing this and finally decided that the brochure is too valuable to simply drop and there has to be a way around the lawyers. Indeed, the committee has repeatedly heard encouragement - from the Cable Office, from Councilmember Marilyn Praisner (who is the council lead on all things cable-related). And at the annual meeting with the Council Executive, Bruce Roemer - the County's Chief Administrative Officer - enthusiastically said that informing the public in this manner was a great idea. (Reminder: County Executive Duncan was too busy to attend his own meeting, hence Roemer's presence on Duncan's behalf. However, Duncan wasn't entirely in the dark - he was briefed on it at his annual meeting a year earlier.)

The CCAC has had the brochure on its agenda for so long that it may as well be a permanent item. While I feel some pleasure that the committee still considers my earlier work valuable, I also feel that the time has come to drop it. It's not worth spending yet more time on a project that isn't going anywhere. While there are things worth butting county heads over, the committee could be spending its limited time much more productively. (Note: The CCAC only has a single 3-hour meeting each month.)

So why am I telling this painful tale? While the CCAC may not be able to publish the brochure, there's nothing stopping a public citizen from doing so. Hence, I am taking that step. The brochure is available here and a link to it will appear in the right-hand column of this blog for permanent reference. Download it. Make it available to others. And feel free to put your name or your company's name at the bottom of the first page. Corporate sponsorship is fine with me if it enables more people to be informed about their rights.

PS: I'm not making on money this. Don't call to tell me you're a sponsor - just put your name on the brochure and start copying!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing this. It is very informative.


Anonymous said...

How many lawsuits do you figure the county could have defended with the same man-hours they wasted reviewing the brochure?