Columbus City Council Deceived Citizens About Public Access TV

Shortly before the Columbus City Council election in November 2013, The Free Press ran an article about the candidates’ positions on whether public access TV should be restored in Columbus. (The Free Press, Oct. 31 – Nov. 6) It’s now clear that when the article came out, the incumbent candidates were hiding more than just their positions on the issue. They and the rest of council were deceiving the public.

Independent candidate Nicholas Schneider made his support for public access TV a major issue in his 2013 campaign. Republican candidates Brian Bainbridge and Greg Lawson also expressed support for restoring it. But the Democratic incumbent candidates, Troy Miller, Eileen Paley and Priscilla Tyson, kept silent about the issue.

The three challengers used The Free Press article as an opportunity to further explain why they think public access TV is important for the community. The incumbent candidates didn’t respond to The Free Press’ requests for their positions.

But council President Andrew Ginther’s chief of staff, Kenneth Paul, did respond in an Oct. 25 email. In regard to research council had reportedly been performing on the issue, he said it didn’t show a resurgence of funding for public access TV in comparable U.S. cities, and thus “was stopped after the initial review was complete.”

As for council’s position on the issue, Paul continued: “While the Council President does not wish to imply that he speaks for all of Council where this matter is concerned, at no point in time has funding for cable access television been advanced by any member of Council. . . . My expectation is that . . . support for appropriating taxpayer dollars to fund cable access television does not presently exist on Council. That said, other members of Council or their staff may wish to respond. . . .“ None did.  

Based on Paul’s statements about council’s research, The Free Press submitted a public records request for all documents relating to it. Analysis of the records discloses that throughout 2013, council misled citizens about the research and whether they had made any decisions on restoring public access TV.

What the records show

In December 2012, the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government, The Neighborhood Network and the Committee for Public Access Television asked council to include funding for public access TV in the 2013 city budget.

On Jan. 7, 2013, the same three public-interest groups sent to Councilman Miller, who chairs council’s technology committee, and Gary Cavin, director of the city’s Dept. of Technology, a four-page letter detailing a proposal for operating a public access TV station.  

On Feb. 1, Miller’s legislative aide, Jeanette Hawkins, emailed the coalition’s president, Jonathan Beard, in response to the three groups’ proposal: “At this time Council will not be amending the City budget to provide for Public Access t.v. However, through Council President Ginther’s office, Council is working to research best practices in comparable cities across the U.S. in order to understand the feasibility of funding such an initiative here in Columbus.”

On Feb. 6, council’s legislative research office emailed Paul about the findings of research performed concerning public access TV. Attached was a document titled “Public Access Television in Similar-Sized Cities, Current Funding Levels.” It describes whether five other cities have public access TV, and briefly discusses funding of the stations in the two of those cities having them.

On Feb. 26, Paul responded to University Area Commission member Charles Robol, who on his own and without the other groups’ knowledge had asked council to reinstate public access TV. Paul emailed Robol that the council president’s office “did conduct a high-level review of how other peer cities in Ohio and around the country address public access television. Nothing in our research suggests that Columbus is out-of-line with the best practices in other cities, nor does it show a renewed trend toward funding public access television. Further, nothing in our research suggests that we need to reevaluate our current position.”

Later that day, Paul forwarded to the rest of council his email to Robol, along with a message that “below you will find a response to a constituent inquiry relative to public access television. While this response is not intended to be on behalf of Council, you should feel free to reference this message in any individual response you might send to similar emails. Council staff was copied on this response earlier today.” Paul also told them the results of the research were attached.

These records show that the research ended in February 2013. Paul referred to it in the past tense in his messages to Robol and council at that time. Paul confirmed that the research concluded back then by saying in his Oct. 25 email that “research on the matter was stopped after the initial review was complete. No further research on the matter has been performed by the legislative research office, or our office.”

Despite being informed in February 2013 that the research was over, council presented a different impression to members of the public throughout the election year – and particularly to the community groups that had formally requested restoration of public access TV.

What city council told citizens

On April 8, Beard, as the coalition’s president and a member of the Committee for Public Access Television, spoke at city council’s weekly meeting to request an update on the research concerning public access TV and offer assistance from the public on it.

Although they had been informed in February that the research was over and supplied with a copy of it at that time, not one of the seven council members responded to Beard. They instead allowed him, the coalition and the other groups he was working with to remain under the incorrect impression that the research was still proceeding.

On April 22, Beard emailed Councilman Miller: “I would ask again at this time for any updates on council’s work related to public access television, and again offer community assistance as council works to understand ‘best practices in comparable cities across the U.S.’”

That email caused Miller’s aide Hawkins to send an April 22 email to Paul in Ginther’s office. It reported that Miller “said he did speak with Mr. Beard and shared that your office was still working on researching the feasibility of public access t.v.”

Even though Paul knew the research had ended in February, neither he nor anyone else in the council president’s office took steps to remind Miller and Hawkins of that fact. They also did not correct the misinformation verbally provided to Beard by the council member.

On May 14, Hawkins emailed Beard: “It is Council Member Miller’s understanding that best practices of other cities is still being researched. . . .” On the same date, she forwarded the email to Paul and council’s spokesman, John Ivanic, along with a message that Miller “wanted me to share this with you.” But Paul and Ivanic did nothing about the false statement that the council member’s office had made in writing to Beard.

Beard also wrote to Miller’s office on May 20, July 17 and Aug. 8 in attempts to schedule a meeting with council members about public access TV or otherwise discuss the issue. He received no response. 

On August 13, Hawkins shared Beard’s Aug. 8 message with Ivanic, who on the same date forwarded it to Paul and two others. But they all continued to give Beard the silent treatment. Like the false statements previously made to Beard, this treatment kept him, the coalition and other members of the public under the false impression that council’s research of public access TV was proceeding, when in fact it had ended months earlier.

After learning what the records revealed, Beard told council in an April 8, 2014 email that he found their behavior “really disturbing.” He added: “To think that our elected officials would be not just non-responsive, but deliberately deceptive to citizens asking simple questions – I really don’t have words to describe it, other than to say ‘you should be ashamed.’” But he still urged council to follow the example of cities such as Atlanta, Boston and Dayton by supporting public access TV. He did not receive a response to that message either.

Nor did council respond to The Free Press’ written questions about why Miller and his office falsely told Beard the research was ongoing, why Paul and Ivanic took no steps to correct the false verbal and written statements made to Beard, or why Beard’s other inquiries did not receive a response from anyone at council, thus allowing him and other citizens to remain under a misapprehension for months.

Why were city council’s pants on fire?

After the council members and their staffs had been informed in February 2013 – by Paul in Ginther’s office – that the research of public access TV was over, why did they mislead community activists for months into thinking the research was still going on?

In the absence of an explanation from council, the public is left to speculate about the reason based on what is known. Possibly it relates to council’s desire to keep public access TV from being an issue in last year’s city council elections.

Council knew the coalition wanted to make a political issue out of Columbus’ lack of that communications medium, which exists in numerous other U.S. cities. In March 2013, the coalition asked all seven council candidates running in the primary for their positions on the issue. The four challengers went on record as supporting restoration of public access TV. The three incumbents refused to respond.

By deceiving the public into thinking that council was still researching the issue throughout the campaign season, the incumbents could hide the decision, made in February 2013, to not restore public access TV. Thus, before the primary election in May and the general election in November, they could keep the challengers from criticizing both the decision and council’s manner of researching the issue.

For example, the challengers could have asked why only two non-Ohio cities (along with only three Ohio cities) were examined in research that had been publicly described as involving “comparable cities across the U.S.” This question could have been embarrassing for the incumbents at candidate forums.

If avoiding such criticisms and questions was a goal of the incumbents’ deception, their strategy was aided by actions of The Columbus Dispatch. The newspaper not only endorsed their reelection but showed no desire to report about public access TV or council’s research of it. The Dispatch was informed of the research as early as February 2013, but never was interested in it or the broader issue of Columbus’ lack of public access TV.

Council couldn’t have gotten away with the deception if The Dispatch had done its job of reporting on this public issue – which directly relates to the fundamental American principle of freedom of speech – that the challengers were discussing in their campaigns.

By handling the matter the way they did, council also could have been serving a purpose of harassing and retaliating against the coalition, which in recent years has been publicly critical of a number of council’s actions. This too is speculation. But it’s based on council’s dishonest and unresponsive actions that misled and exasperated the coalition, and which council has refused to give any other explanation for.  

What will city council do about the deception?

In viewing how council responds to this matter, it’s relevant to keep in mind Ginther’s reaction to reports of governmental dishonesty he received when he was on the Columbus Board of Education in 2004.

In January of this year, State Auditor Dave Yost released the results of an 18-month investigation into data manipulation in the Columbus Public Schools. The report said school officials had for years falsified huge amounts of data to deceive the public about the schools’ performance. After the report’s issuance, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman said the curtain had been lifted on the district’s “culture of dishonesty,” which he said caused public confidence to be “shattered.” 

As head of the board’s audit committee in 2004, Ginther received written reports from two whistleblowers about the fraud being perpetrated on the public. Despite being told that high-ranking school officials were “cooking the books,” Ginther took no action that would uncover the wrongdoing. And he was involved in the board’s subsequent firing of the internal auditor who was about to launch an audit that would have exposed the massive deception. Because of this mishandling of the situation, the dishonest treatment of the public continued for years.

Ginther later said the audit committee had other priorities besides looking more closely into the whistleblowers’ allegations, which he also claimed were not specific enough for the auditor to investigate properly. But he added that if he had known then what he knows now, he would have given the reports of data falsification the highest priority.

As council’s president, Ginther now has another chance to show how concerned he is about governmental dishonesty and the public’s ability to trust public officials. He knows that council’s false statements and unresponsive actions deceived citizens about public access TV during 2013.

How can he expect the public to respect and trust council after finding out about the deception, unless corrective action is taken? So far, though, there’s no indication that Ginther or anyone else on council has done anything to hold people accountable or change council’s treatment of the public.

An ethical and principled government would take strong acts to correct these problems. Thomas Jefferson said, “The whole of government consists in the art of being honest.” And in regard to the right to speak freely and receive information, Jefferson said that in its defense “every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”

By engaging in a course of dishonesty and deception to keep the public from being able to exercise freedom of speech on public access TV, council behaved in a shameful manner that could not be more inconsistent with Jeffersonian principles and other principles of good government.

[The website for the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government is at www.columbuscoalition.info.]