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County votes to settle public access dispute

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2003

TAMPA -- Hillsborough commissioners budged little in their back-and-forth settlement talks involving the First Amendment lawsuit brought by operators of its public access television station.

The board voted narrowly to pay Speak Up Tampa Bay, the non-profit station operators, a lump sum of $125,000 it was seeking, presumably its attorneys' fees in bringing the federal case. They had previously offered $95,000.

But commissioners refused Speak Up's request to have its contract extended past the November 2004 elections. Commissioners want the contract to end in October of that year.

They also continue to insist that Speak Up guarantee that it provide 730 hours annually of community-oriented programming, something operators have said they can't mandate of their citizen producers.

The vote was 4-3, with commissioners Pat Frank, Ken Hagan and Jan Platt voting against the settlement offer. Both Frank and Platt proposed settlement offers more in keeping with what Speak Up is seeking, but failed to gain support.

Commissioners cast their votes after about 45 minutes of a closed meeting to discuss options. They talked little in the open session.

Kathy Castor initially proposed extending Speak Up's contract through December 2004. Speak Up had sought an extension through March of 2005. She, too, insisted on mandating out of the station community-oriented programming using the station's mobile van.

"They have a commitment in their contract toward outreach," Castor said afterward. "We want to help them."

Her proposal died for lack of a second.

Speak Up sued the county in U.S. District Court last year after commissioners voted to cut funding for the station, alleging the cuts were prompted by concerns raised about nudity on shows aired on the station. The station argued commissioners were censoring its citizen producers by cutting money used to operate the cable channel.

A federal judge largely agreed late last year, ruling that Speak Up likely would prevail in the case and ordering the two sides into mediation.

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