Wilmington city council may reach out to New Hanover County officials seeking partnership regarding the creation of a public access channel that was discussed during its Jan. 15 meeting at City Hall.
Councilwoman Margaret Haynes and Mayor Bill Saffo expressed concerns that a public access channel would be used by more than just city residents, who would pay for it.
“City taxpayers should not foot the bill for something that serves people in the unincorporated area and even other counties,” Haynes said. “I support it, I think it’s a great idea, but we are here representing the taxpayers from the city. The county should take the lead on this.”
But, in a telephone interview Jan. 18, County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said “no.”
“The county is not involved and has no plan of getting involved in public access. We made that very clear a couple years ago,” Barfield said. “We went down that road and looked into that. …The city has been the one funding surveys and all of those things. From the county’s standpoint, it’s not our issue and it’s unfortunate the city didn’t realize that.”
Barfield offered two major reasons for not wanting to get involved.
“No. 1, it’s not in our budget. No. 2, the county would not want to get into any kind of religious programming,” Barfield said, citing current controversy involving separation of church and state. Much of the support for a public access channel has come from religious groups.
Discussion regarding the creation of a public access channel began with the nonprofit Southeastern Alliance for Community Change. As proposed, the public access channel would host original content created by members of the Wilmington community.
North Carolina law states that any city with more than 50,000 people be allowed three PEG — public, educational or government access — channels with its local cable provider.
The city of Wilmington currently operates a government access channel, GTV, which airs city council meetings and other city-related information on Time Warner Cable’s channel 8.
In addition, New Hanover County Schools, Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington have partnered to create and air educational programming for The Learning Network of Cape Fear on TWC channel 5.
The proposed public access channel would air on TWC channel 4, which is currently devoid of programming.
Results of a survey conducted by the city, which ended earlier this month, disclosed almost 80 percent of 339 respondents were in favor of a public access channel; 303 respondents said they lived in Wilmington, and almost 70 percent were in favor of using tax money to fund the channel.
At council’s Jan. 15 meeting, city manager Sterling Cheatham recommended against pursuing a public access channel, despite public support, due to potential legal issues. The county ran into these same issues when it attempted to pursue a public access channel several years ago.
Barfield said the only way the county would have been able to secure channel 4 from TWC would be to sue it, and even then they would still need to reach a franchise agreement.
“Is that a good use of taxpayer money? To sue someone over something that probably wouldn’t happen anyway?” Barfield said.
Any decisions regarding where to proceed with a public access channel were postponed at council’s Jan. 15 meeting to allow city staff to gather more information. In addition to whether the county would consider a partnership, council questioned how other cities ran their public access channels and whether there were business models capable of producing operational revenue projections.