Gazette: Town Manager Offers Amherst Media Extension

On February 10, 2017, The Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article written by staff writer Scott Merzbach on the latest in the contract issue between Amherst Media and the Town of Amherst for providing services to the town of Amherst.

AMHERST — As representatives of Amherst Media continue to express concern over a municipal decision to put the services it provides out to bid, the town manager is offering the cable access nonprofit a contract extension through June 30.

In a memo sent to Amherst Media’s executive committee last Friday, Town Manager Paul Bockelman offered to amend the current agreement and allow the contract, which expired in October, to continue. Amherst Media has not yet responded to the offer.

But for those who negotiated the deal with Comcast, that outlines how much the cable company will pay annually for public, education and government channels, or PEG access, as well as capital needs at the station, the fact that negotiations for a new 10-year contract have not begun is troubling.

Executive Director Jim Lescault said the town could be eliminating the autonomy that Amherst Media has had for 41 years and will remove the “bond and trust” the public puts in its programming being fair and impartial, and not just a wing of the town government.

Lescault put together a promotional video in which he said, “Amherst Media’s independence is being threatened by the town.”

Bockelman, though, has said changes in state regulations by the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services are forcing Amherst to handle the accounting for funds coming to Amherst from Comcast in a new way.

Bockelman said he anticipates a “highly transparent process” when negotiations occur.

In the meantime, the public will not be affected by the lack of contract and meetings of the Select Board, Planning Board and School Committee, as well as broadcasts of Town Meeting, will continue.

“Amherst Media continues to provide all services,” said Bockelman, adding that there will be no interruption of services and that Amherst Media will continue to receive payments under the terms of the expired contract.

In front of several supporters, Lescault told the Select Board that he believes the cable company can continue to directly fund Amherst Media.

“This funding mechanism is currently being implemented in 17 western Mass communities,” Lescault said. “As Select Board members you have never acknowledged this existing option being utilized in neighboring Northampton, Holyoke, Springfield, Deerfield and 13 others.”

Demetria Shabazz, a member of Amherst Media’s board, said the Department of Revenue has created a recommendation, not a requirement, to pay cable access centers through a request for proposal.

In written memos to the board though, Bockelman noted that both auditing firm Melanson Heath and a state Department of Revenue representative have told the town that it can no longer pass revenues through to Amherst Media.

Bockelman said he is continuing to develop the specifications for the request for proposal, or RFP, with a tentative timeline to advertise this Feb. 28, have proposals due March 17 and a contract signed by April 14.

Whether Amherst Media is the only one interested or able to offer this service won’t be known until the RFP goes out.

Longtime Amherst resident Isaac BenEzra, who negotiated the current 10-year contract signed in February 2007, which was retroactive to October 2006, said what is happening is undermining the future of public access in Amherst.

“From my perspective, free speech is under attack,” BenEzra said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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News

Mar 22, 2017

Amherst Media is elated to announce that Amherst’s Town Manager and Select Board have reversed their decision to post a Request for Proposal (RFP) and instead is heeding the recent findings from the MA Inspector General’s Office and Department of Revenue.

This excerpt from the Town Manger’s report to the Select Board on Monday, March 20, stated the following:

What does this mean? In short, we are moving back to the way we have accounted for funds and contracted for services as we have in the past.

Next Steps: 

Mar 16, 2017

At the Monday, March 13, 2017 Select Board meeting, Jim Lescault, Executive Director of Amherst Media, spoke during public comment, presenting to the Select Board a very real alternative to the path of Request for Proposal the Town was on.  The Office of Inspector General had written their opinion regarding PEG services and 30B procurement totally redefining how the Town of Amherst’s government had interpreted the regulations.

Mar 6, 2017

There unfortunately continues to be many unanswered questions circulating around the Amherst community regarding the recent decision by the Town Manager and Select Board regarding the proposed changes in how the Town contracts Amherst Media for the Cable Access Public, Education & Government (PEG) services.

While the Town will be providing an on-line opportunity for the community to give input to the RFP, we feel there exists a real need for a community dialogue on such a monumental change in policy.

Feb 24, 2017

In an age of mass media consolidation, access to public information to insure government transparency is more vital than ever. Amherst Media, one of the oldest community access centers in the country providing that kind of transparency to its community, is in a contract dispute with the Town of Amherst. And as with many other such centers across the country over the last ten years, its future is far from certain.

Feb 24, 2017

Dear Friends of Amherst Media,

Our contract saga continues, but now, with legal counsel, we are ready to mount an exertive effort to bring the Town and Amherst Media to the table for negotiations.

A letter was submitted to the Select Board requesting that Amherst Media be placed on the Feb. 27 evening’s agenda. The letter stated that Amherst Media had obtained legal counsel as of February 20 and that our counsel would like to discuss the Town Manager’s February 3 offer to extend Amherst Media’s expired contract through June 30, 2017.