Monday, July 24, 2006

Summer Vacation For Public Advice

An alert reader, noticing where we are in the month, asked me for an update from the MC Executive's citizen advisory committee - formally known as the Telecommunications Advisory Committee. The TAC meets on the third Wednesday of each month ... except:
  1. There are no TAC meetings in the summer, and
  2. 1. doesn't matter anyway but for different reasons then it thinks. (Hang in there. That sentence will make more sense soon.)
Summer TAC Meetings

At the last meeting, the TAC and the Cable Office agreed that nothing was happening that required TAC attention. (Rather ironic given the Verizon lawsuit announced just one week later.) But as long as I can remember, this peculiar practice occurs: The TAC is led by the Cable Office to believe that nothing is happening and TAC members happily concur that meetings will be poorly attended due to summer vacations anyway so by mutual agreement, the TAC schedules their next meeting 3 months hence - in September.

Yet every year, serious things churn throughout the summer. Last summer, the TAC recessed for the summer and only then did citizens find out about a hearing on Bill 7-05 (to extend the life of the Cable Compliance Commission) 5 days before the hearing. The year before, only in June did we see the final draft of the Executive's cable modem regulations (26-03AM) to be voted on by the Council before the next TAC meeting. And the summer of 2002, it was Bill 28-02 (which established the Cable Compliance Commission and led to the cable modem regs). Is citizen involvement really desired by the county - or does it simply want to pay lip service to the idea of citizen input?

And do TAC representatives really care about telecomm issues? Or are they just padding their resumes? It's a bad sign that the TAC representatives are all too happy to agree to take the summer off despite the history of what goes on around here. Good grief people! Is one night a month too much to ask?

Not That It Matters

Back to the question: Does the county want citizen input? An advisory committee? What for? A public hearing to consider the Verizon franchise? Why do we need to hear from the public? (Pop quiz for any MC officials: Over the last 10 years, which TAC recommendations has the Executive followed?)

Obviously, I have my doubts the Executive has spent a lot of time considering TAC testimony but at least the Executive has held public hearings for franchises. Alas, this seems to have stopped. The Executive didn't hold one for the RCN franchise renegotiation. And the Executive has not held one for Verizon. I recommend three public hearings:
  1. One now - to let the public weigh in on the lawsuit.
  2. One after the franchise application has been made available to the public for a suitable period of time - to give the Executive advice on the application.
  3. And one more - to comment on the Executive's proposal during Council consideration.
By failing to even file the franchise, the Executive prevents the public from seeing any parts of Verizon's application and subsequent filings. (Yes, I know Verizon has not officially submitted an application but this now appears to be a technical issue rather than one of intent.) During Comcast's last franchise negotation, the county released close to 1000 pages of documentation - a treasure trove of material (some of it quite embarrassing and a good predictor of Comcast's future behavior) that helped citizens learn about the company.

Finally, each hearing must be effectively communicated to the public with sufficient lead time. The county has a history of announcing hearings without enough advance notice to give citizens (or the TAC) enough time to prepare statements. And such meetings must be communicated effectively to the public. Why is there no email list for such announcements? Even the Division of Solid Waste Services has an email alert list to let the public know when they're going to reschedule pickups! Can't we get this kind of timely and reliable email communication with other parts of the Executive branch? Or is it only for garbage?

And the Executive branch is not alone in its poor communication skills. The County Council home page has long advertised that citizens can sign up for council agendas and packets. And I have signed up - several times! But I've never received one. I finally called up this week and spoke to a council staffer who said that she wondered if any of the hundreds of people who had subscribed would ever complain. Evidentally, it was well-known internally that there was no automated mechanism to provide what the council has been advertising!

What's Happened Recently

On July 11, a closed-door session was held by the Council's MFP committee to discuss strategy over the Verizon lawsuit. The County is allowed to have closed-door sessions when getting advice from their lawyers. Yet it is my understanding no members of the TAC were invited to give their advice or otherwise participate. This is unfortunate as the advice from the lawyers is likely to simply re-affirm the interests of the county government - a self-reinforcing cycle of self-interest with resulting non-progress.

On July 20, the county filed its response. I've only just seen it myself; however a quick glance shows that it attempts to refute all of Verizon's assertions. By the way, the original Verizon filing was not searchable. I've made available a searchable version. (When you generate PDF, please make it searchable!)

In the meantime, I encourage you to read the discussion at There has been some stimulating discussion of the lawsuit including comparisons with the franchises that Verizon has signed in neighboring jurisdictions and how these compare to the MC offers. One of the more surprising observations was the assertion that the Council advised the Executive that no cable-related legislation should be proposed before the next set of elections. If council members are too busy campaigning to do their job, I recommend they resign so that they can focus their attention on what is evidentally most important to them: their campaign.

More Notable Dates

On July 31 at 2pm, there will be the usual quarterly review of the franchisees: Comcast and RCN. Verizon is also invited pro forma. But based on the hyperbole being issued by both sides, I can't imagine how this will turn out. Bring popcorn. Settle back. No matter what, it should be entertaining. You can attend in person (7th floor of the County Council Building) or watch via County Cable Montgomery (channel 6) or streaming video - live or archived. Warning: the streaming video is very low resolution and the archive is usually not available for a day or two.

Although I've repeatedly said that Verizon has a significant advantage in the current situation, these MFP meetings generally keep the franchisees (and franchisee applicants) at a disadvantage. The councilmembers are in charge of the mike and can interrupt or cut off any speaker at whim. The council can bluster and posture and the other attendees have no recourse but to sit there and take it. Obsequiousness rules the day. Of course they can walk out or skip the meeting. That's been done, too, but I don't recommend it. Bottom line: Don't expect any kind of aggressiveness or legal maneuvering from Verizon here. This won't be the time for it.

On August 15 at 7pm, there will be a Candidate Forum for District 18 Legislators at the Kensington Town Hall (Armory Building). I bring this up because one of the candidates likely to participate is incumbent Delegate Jane Lawton who is also the Cable Administrator for Montgomery County.

Would this be the time to pose questions regarding the cable franchise? I don't recommend it. Jane is much too knowledgeable to be caught off-guard. She serves at the pleasure of Executive Duncan and she will faithfully represent his position, even if she personally doesn't agree. Nonetheless, it might still be worth watching her at the forum. She's very smart, experienced, and polished - plus, as an incumbent, she has a tremendous advantage over the other candidates.


Anonymous said...

You are doing a great job! You're coverage is both funny and serious.
I'm particulary interested in why the meeting for the quarterly review of the fanchisees takes place at 2pm. Is that because most people will not be able to attend and perhaps participate as they watch their representatives in "inaction"?
It sounds like the TAC group is not very concerned either - why are any of them on this committee? Have you ever heard from any of them?
Anyway, keep up the good work!!

seatofpower said...

check out my latest post at

Can you add my blog to your list of links?