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Town manager offers Amherst Media extension

  • Paul Bockelman Submitted photo



Staff Writer
Thursday, February 09, 2017

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