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City may sue Bright House
By Janet Zink Times Staff Writer
Published October 19, 2007
TAMPA - The City Council on Thursday called on the mayor to take legal action to block Bright House Networks from removing local government television from basic cable plans.
The mayor is interested in doing just that, City Attorney David Smith told them.
Bright House plans to make the switch Dec. 11 throughout the region. The company says it's changing because customers want the same order of channels in each Tampa Bay market.
But Tampa and other local governments, including St. Petersburg, object to the plan because it will force customers interested in public access, educational and government channels to rent a digital box.
"It's unfair to the poor and folks who don't want to be paying any more to get government channels," said Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder. "This is not an ego thing. It's about connecting to our community through this channel."
Government access channels air meetings of the City Council, Hillsborough County Commission and other public bodies as well as taped programs promoting government services, including a show called The Mayor's Hour, where Mayor Pam Iorio interviews guests.
The City Council cannot take legal action but can call on the mayor to do so. Smith said Tampa officials are interested in joining forces with St. Petersburg and Manatee County, which have indicated an interest in suing Bright House.
"It would make more sense to do it jointly," he said.
Council members in St. Petersburg have authorized a lawsuit, but city attorneys there have stopped short of filing one and are looking for a possible resolution outside the courtroom.
But "if Tampa's filing one, we may take a look at it," City Attorney John Wolfe said. Wolfe, however, said he is unsure if the city can win.
Currently, city of Tampa television is on Channel 15. The change would put the programming in the 600 range and require digital service to access. Bright House officials say those who don't have digital service can get a converter box for $1 a month.
They say the change comes in advance of a federal law that requires all television stations to go digital in February 2009.
But in a letter to Bright House, Smith said requiring people to pay for a cable box would deny many access to the channels. Plus, he said, federal law doesn't allow the cable company to deprive viewers of the channels as long as analog service is still available.
Bright House attorney Steve Anderson says the company feels "very firmly that we have the legal right to do what we're doing, and that the vast majority of our customers want this to happen.
"I hate to see the city allocate valuable and very limited resources in a lawsuit such as this, but that's their business, just as managing channels is our business."
In other business Thursday:
-The council approved a 75 percent increase in permit fees for commercial construction and a 10 percent increase for residential projects.
-West Tampa residents and business owners urged the council not to interfere with plans to turn the empty Fort Homer Hesterly Armory into a luxury hotel and cultural arts center.
Last month, some council members questioned why they hadn't been able to weigh in on the selection of a developer. Council member Mary Mulhern suggested beginning the process again.
But six people told the council the project proposed by Heritage Square will be an economic boon to the neighborhood and shouldn't be slowed down.
Council members Tom Scott and Mulhern reiterated their concerns about council's role in the selection of the developer, but the board took no action.
Staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3401.