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TN: Comcast miffed as Chamber takes cable stance

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Created 04/27/2007 - 8:22am

from: Nashville City Paper [1]

Comcast miffed as Chamber takes cable stance
By Bill Harless,
April 27, 2007

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce board endorsed state legislation yesterday that would allow telecommunications giant AT&T — which recently merged with BellSouth — to obtain a statewide franchise to provide television service.

Comcast, a leading cable TV and Internet provider, expressed frustration after the late afternoon vote that the company was not informed about the vote prior to the meeting though Comcast is a Chamber member. AT&T and Comcast along with the rest of the state’s cable companies are in a pitched battle in the halls of the Tennessee General Assembly lobbying over the legislation, which the cable industry vehemently opposes.

Also, after the board meeting began but before the vote was taken, a City Paper reporter was escorted out of the meeting by Chamber staff, who said the meeting was private and that no Chamber member is allowed to attend board meetings without an invitation. The newspaper presented its paid Chamber membership receipt to staff before being shown the door.

Debby Dale Mason, the Chamber’s chief of staff, told The City Paper yesterday she believed the board endorsed the state franchise bill because the bill encourages competition.

“I think for the Chamber board, it was a larger discussion about the issue of competition, the issue of capital investment in the state, jobs, just a healthy business environment. Competition, I think, is something that business is obviously supportive of,” Mason said, adding the board was tackling the issue from a broader policy perspective rather than from a company vs. company vantage.

After the meeting, Comcast expressed concern they were not informed of the vote in advance.

“That would be news to Comcast. The company was not even informed that this issue was being discussed by the Chamber board today much less that a vote was going to be taken,” said Diane Christie, senior director of government relations with the company, in a written statement. “It’s hard for the board to get a full view of an issue this complex when only one side of the debate has the ear of Chamber leadership and is in the room by virtue of one of its employees being on the board.”

Christie was apparently referring to Chamber board member Marty Dickens, the president of AT&T in Tennessee.

“The Purcell Administration and the Metro Council have clearly said that [AT&T’s] bill is not [in] Nashville’s best short or long-term interest. At the end of the day we believe that the Legislature will determine that the City and the Council are correct,” Christie said.

Mason noted that the board received a Chamber whitepaper Thursday, a study she said took into account both sides of the debate.

“I think that [with] the materials that we’re put together for the discussion, both proponents and opponents of the [franchising] bill had opportunity to provide input into their portion of the materials and the internal whitepaper that was presented, so I think that they were aware that this position has been looked at [by] a Government Relations Committee,” Mason said.

She added Thursday’s vote was timely because the Tennessee General Assembly is currently in session.
“So that’s just part of the process. This is not deviating from any process that we’ve had before.”

Mason said the vote was unanimous but that Joe Hall, vice-chair of the Chamber’s Government Relations and Community Improvement Committee, abstained. Hall’s lobbying firm currently represents the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, which opposes the state franchising bill.

Mayor Bill Purcell’s office reiterated its support for the Tennessee Municipal League’s opposition to the bill.
“We support the maximum level of competition for the benefit of Nashville’s residents but at the same time want to preserve the control of local government for the benefit of our consumers,” Purcell spokeswoman Molly Sudderth said.

The Chamber received approximately $500,000 this fiscal year from Metro which gave $300,000 to Partnership 2010, the Chamber’s economic development arm, and $200,000 to the Nashville Sports Council, an entity that last February separated from the Chamber.

Mason said the vote Thursday should not damage the Chamber’s relationship with Metro.

“I think that the mayor looks at positions from the perspective of city government, the Chamber looks at it from the perspective of business. And I think both groups understand that there are going to be time we agree and work together, and there are going to be times we may disagree.”

Also Thursday, Chamber staff presented the board a proposal to significantly reduce the size of the Chamber’s board and Executive Committee. But Chamber President Ralph Schulz said plans are under way to create a new committee structure that would allow small business owners more say in Chamber policymaking.

The board Thursday voted to retain Zycron CEO Darrell Freeman as its chairman for another year and Avenue Bank CEO Ron Samuels as vice-chairman. The two, along with Dickens and six others, led the search committee that selected Schulz.

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