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Rudiak frustrated by cable flap

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 12:34 a.m.

Some Pittsburgh City Council members erupted this week over what they described as unauthorized agreements that sent money directly to the city's public access cable television provider.

But solicitor Daniel Regan, Controller Michael Lamb and City Information Services officials all say council not only authorized the agreements through resolutions passed in 2009 and 2010, but directed CIS and the mayor's office to negotiate them.

Council President Darlene Harris said the agreements clearly required council approval, and that didn't happen.

Council members caught in the middle said they only want to ensure that more of the money is directed to the city's Bureau of Cable Communications for an upgrade of obsolete equipment. The Cable Bureau programs and airs live broadcasts of council meetings.

“What's frustrating for me is I stepped into this mess,” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who chairs a council committee that oversees the cable bureau. “We have to make sure the cable bureau's needs are also fulfilled.”

The flap dates to 2009 and 2010, when council approved franchise agreements permitting Comcast and Verizon to operate in the city. Those agreements included grants to be shared by the cable bureau and North Side-based Pittsburgh Cable Televisions Inc.

The grants totaled about $1.9 million as of December, according to Kate DeSimone, the acting CIS director. PCTV received $1.6 million under a contract with the city, and the cable bureau received $274,000, she said.

Council resolutions directed the money to be deposited into trust funds, but in 2011, City Information officials amended the agreements with Comcast and Verizon, permitting them to send PCTV's share directly to PCTV.

Harris said council intended the grants to be evenly split and was unaware of the changes. Councilman Bill Peduto was more critical.

“I don't think this is legal,” he said during council's meeting on Wednesday.

Harris told the Trib on Thursday that allowing direct payments to PCTV circumvented city control.

“CIS authorized without council's approval money to be sent directly from Verizon and Comcast to PCTV,” she said. “We are the legislative body. We have to authorize all expenditures. Where are the checks and balances?”

Lamb said the amended agreements did not change amounts going to PCTV and the cable bureau, and all money owed to the city cable bureau has been deposited into the trust funds.

“For council to say the money wrongly went to PCTV, that is absolutely not true,” Lamb said.

Regan agreed: “Reading the (city Home Rule Charter) and looking back over the legislation, it's clear to me that these agreements were authorized by council.”

Council on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that requires all grants from Verizon and Comcast to be deposited into the trust funds. It increases cable bureau funding by $1.45 million during the next seven years.

“The channel was going on and off the air,” Rudiak said. “Our (microphones) are held together with duct tape. Clearly, we have some issues.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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