By Mike Kroll
Galesburg officials were prepared to participate in something unusual Wednesday morning. Members of the City Council were scheduled to meet face-to-face with Michael Willner, CEO of cable television firm Insight Communications, to discuss a new cable TV franchise agreement. The preceding cable franchise agreement (negotiated with Insights predecessor TCI) expired in 1999, before Insight took over local cable TV operations. Insight currently offers service under an ongoing extension of the prior agreement as representatives of Galesburg and the company continued to negotiate.
For most of this time the Citys Telecommunications Commission and attorney Michael Smoron have handled negotiations. Insight has been represented by district vice president Jeanne Coleman and company attorney Keith Hall. By late last summer hopes were high on both sides that an agreement was imminent as a draft agreement was transmitted to both the Galesburg City Council and Insights corporate office in New York City. Locally these hopes first began to fade as time seemed to drag on without hearing word from Insightbut these hopes were nearly dashed when Insights response finally arrived in December in the form of a heavily marked up and edited agreement.
"What came back hardly resembled what we thought we had agreed upon last summer," stated a disgusted John Guiste. Guiste has served as the city staff liaison to the Telecommunication Commission throughout both the negotiations and two unsuccessful referendum attempts seeking to build a city-owned cable system. During the second referendum campaign Willner sought to distance his firm from the very troubled past during TCIs tenure operating the Galesburg system. Insights now famous catch phrase, "promises made promises kept" was uttered repeatedly by none other than Willner himself Insight painted a city-owned cable system as a risky endeavor that wouldnt offer anything more than promised by his firm.
By the end of last summer it appeared that a mere handful of issues remained to be settled: the duration of the franchise agreement, a Galesburg request that Insight provide a direct cable connection with the Carl Sandburg College campus, calculation of the franchise fee, and finally, a commitment by Insight to insure that Galesburgs cable TV system keep up with technological and programming improvements available elsewhere.
This last issue is perhaps the most innovative idea to come out of the negotiations. Referred to as a "most favored nation" clause it would be Galesburgs assurance that our cable TV vendor would commit sufficient resources to the local system to keep it ahead of technical obsolescence. This clause is directly tied to the length of the franchise agreement. Where Insight officials have requested a 10-15 year agreement the City position has been all along that such a long-term agreement should be predicated upon performance and technological criteria. Galesburg would like to offer a five-year agreement that automatically extends for a second five years provided Insight meets conditions.
The idea of inviting Willner to Galesburg came out of a City Council work session earlier this month when Smoron and members of the Telecommunications Commission told the Council of their frustrations in negotiating with Insight. The request was that a committee of the City Council and selected commission members assume responsibility for negotiating with Insight. Smoron pointed out that one way to avoid having hours of negotiations vetoed by Insight officials in New York was to invite Willner himself to help hammer out a deal. Council members were skeptical but the invitation was extended.
Just what can be expected from such a meeting is unclear but Willner accepted the invitation and was scheduled to meet in a special public session with City officials Wednesday morning beginning at 10am. I contacted Willner by telephone Tuesday and asked him directly why he accepted the invitation.
"Why wouldnt I? It is important to me that these discussions be completed and a franchise agreement signed between Insight and Galesburg. I think the two parties are actually much closer to agreement than has been publicized. I would go as far as to say we are actually quite close to agreement."
It could be argued that there is really very little reason for Insight to sign any agreement with Galesburg that contains provisions more onerous upon the company than those included in the preceding franchise agreement. The company maintains a monopoly on cable television service with the defeat of the referendum and under existing Federal law it would be extremely difficult for City officials to terminate Insights Galesburg franchise with or without a new agreement. I asked Willner point blank, why should he care if any agreement is reached with Galesburg.
"Because it is the right thing to do," he answered firmly. "We promised that we would come to terms with the City and that we would improve cable television service in Galesburg, I intend to keep those promises. Insight is a generally responsible corporate citizen everywhere we serve and the responsible way to manage a cable system is under the terms of a negotiated franchise agreement. I am very familiar with these agreements. Insight operates under thousands of these every day and we are experienced in these matters. I dont think that our companys positions have been accurately portrayed to the citizens of Galesburg. There are things contained in the draft franchise agreement with Galesburg that Insight has never offered anywhere else and we are promising levels of service exceeding those found in similar sized systems."
When asked to describe either the few remaining sticking points to the Galesburg negotiations or the extraordinary commitments being made by Insight Willner declined by saying he would not negotiate in the press. He did say that Insights top manager in Illinois, Greg Capranica, as well as Coleman and Hall would accompany him to Galesburg. He expected to concentrate discussion on the "half-dozen" big issues remaining saying that it is not his role to get involved in the nitty-gritty aspects of the franchise. "Before everything is all said and done this agreement must get all lawyered up as do all such agreements but such details should not distract us from the important points to be settled."
Galesburg City Manager Gary Goddard says he hopes Willner is right that an agreement can be quickly worked out. "But we heard a lot of talk like that last summer too," he points out. "I think it would help if we simply dropped the most recent draft that was sent from New York and went back to the August draft agreement. Nearly everyone involved agreed that both sides were very close at that point and there were relatively few issues remaining to be determined."
As Willner was preparing to leave for Louisville, Kentucky Tuesday he said he was optimistic about this Galesburg meeting. "I am looking forward to coming back and discussing some of these issues directly. My goal is to get some of the key business points settled so the lawyers can finish the job shortly thereafter. I am committed to coming to terms with the City."