Submitted by Jim Shea
The headline above a letter published in your November 2 issue, my name followed by the words, “Bedford Cable TV and Depot Park Pioneer,” made me wonder if I was about to read an obituary. But a quick check of my vital signs suggests that I am still alive. I am flattered by the compliments made in that piece and from the several people who added to it with their own kind remarks.
The letter was sparked by a Select Board vote to not reappoint me to the erstwhile Cable Television Committee, which more recently uses the name Community Media Committee. It appears that the letter continues to be read and have an impact because I still receive comments about it from current and former Town staff, committee members and Bedford residents, several of whom I had not previously known. They express surprise and disappointment that a person who is a longtime Bedford native, has donated thousands of their funds to equip a cable television studio for Bedford, has a career in broadcast media, is well versed in cable television licensing and regulations, was recruited by a prominent consultant to assist with licensing in other towns, and treats their unpaid Town duties with the same dedication as a paying job, was deemed unqualified to continue serving our residents on this committee.
Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to listen to a recording of the meeting at which Select Board member Emily Mitchell made a motion to not reappoint me. She based her motion on premises that are questionable if not flawed. The first is that I spoke against additions to the committee’s bylaw that were proposed at the 2018 Special Town Meeting, an effort that was spearheaded by the company we hire to operate the Comcast and Verizon access channels. This bylaw amendment added non-cable responsibilities to the committee’s already considerable workload that some of us felt would be better accomplished by a separate entity. (Examples of the committee’s recent major work may be viewed at www.J-Shea.com/cabletv.) The committee voted unanimously to not support the proposed bylaw changes—and we were joined by two Selectmen who also voted against them. By the standard invoked by Ms. Mitchell, anyone who objected to the proposed bylaw amendment is unqualified to be a member of the Cable Committee.
Select Board member Mitchell also cited as rationale for her motion that the committee has not advised the board about ways to make the Comcast and Verizon access channels available to the entire town, presumably to non-cable subscribers through the Internet. She did not mention that the Select Board has not requested such guidance from the committee. If it had, of course the committee would respond. The complaint seems further without merit because Internet distribution of access channel programming is already being performed by our current operator, at virtually no cost we are told. Also, the committee included a continuation of this function in a draft RFP (request for proposals) and contract for access services that we prepared and forwarded to the Select Board over a year ago. The committee did not receive a reply to the draft, which committee members worked on for months, and was not invited to formally present its recommendations to the Select Board.
Contrary to a letter from the Town Manager’s office that states I would be informed when my reappointment is scheduled for discussion, I was not notified in this case. Any citizen for appointment or reappointment ought to have an opportunity to directly answer questions or refute erroneous characterizations before votes are taken. It is also odd that no discussion about Ms. Mitchell’s motion or my qualifications occurred among the board members before their vote.
Despite the committee’s name change and added responsibilities, cable television remains at its core. The committee still depends on having members who are astute in this field. The term “PEG access” is an FCC definition that specifically relates to the channels on a cable television system that a cable operator makes available to a municipality. It is not a generic term. PEG access does not exist, therefore, without cable television as its foundation. Should a majority of residents become interested in a separate Town-run, Internet-based TV station that does not rely on cable television and the revenue received from surcharges on cable subscriber bills, the expense to taxpayers and other important implications ought to be fully understood before we venture in such a direction.
Former colleague Steve Kerwin wrote in your publication that he left the committee partly because the Select Board was not open to seriously listening to the committee’s recommendations. He described his experiences with the Select Board as “frustrating and discouraging.” This is a trend that I also have observed over the past couple years. Former and current selectmen Michael Rosenberg and Ed Pierce are notable exceptions—they have been supportive of not only this committee, but more broadly of Bedford’s longstanding committee system of government. Given all the legwork and consideration that Bedford’s committees perform before arriving at their expert advice, our expectation should be that our elected representatives will listen carefully to these bodies, not interfere with their operation, and have meaningful public discussions before final decisions are reached.
Mr. Kerwin was an outstanding committee member whose loss is felt. Recently, the committee’s chairman informed me that he, too, is leaving the group prompted by his own disappointment. These departures combined with the manner in which my reappointment was handled point to a changing atmosphere in our local government that is both concerning and contrary to the Bedford that I have proudly known and served in multiple capacities for decades.