Each month, the city of Tacoma writes checks to broadcast companies for the right to carry their programming on the city’s cable network.
Those checks, like other expenditures by government agencies, are public records — public, that is, unless you want to know the amounts.
Click Cable TV, in response to a request from The News Tribune, said the public is barred from knowing how much the city pays local broadcasters.
Tacoma Public Utilities, which operates Click, recently released images of the checks it issued to five broadcast companies between 2007 and 2013 with the amounts blacked out, saying that a March court ruling protecting the broadcasters’ contracts with Click also extends to payments made to the broadcasters.
Kathy George, chairwoman of the legal committee for the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said withholding such information is unusual for a government agency. Government invoices and checks are typically accessible to the public because “they involve the spending of taxpayer money, which is a public concern,” she said.
“In general, how the public’s money is spent is absolutely a matter of public record,” George said. “It goes to the heart of what Washington’s open-government laws are all about.”
This isn’t the first time The News Tribune has clashed with Click and area broadcast companies about access to Click’s records. Earlier this year, the owners of several Seattle-area television stations went to court to stop Click from releasing its contracts with the broadcasters to The News Tribune.
Fisher Communications, Belo Management Services, KIRO-TV, Tribune Broadcasting, and CBS Corp. argued that their retransmission consent agreements with Click are trade secrets and should be protected. The agreements detail how much the companies charge Click to air broadcast signals for the channels KING, KOMO, KIRO, KCPQ and KSTW.
After a Pierce County Superior Court judge granted the broadcasters’ request to block the release of the contracts, The News Tribune requested copies of checks Click has written to the five broadcasting companies.
Click redacted the payment amounts on the checks issued to the broadcasters at the broadcasters’ request.
In letters to Click, attorneys for the broadcasters cited Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper’s March ruling as a justification.
Karen Peterson, executive editor of The News Tribune, said the decision to keep Click’s payment information secret limits the public’s ability to keep watch over the government agency.
“It seems ridiculous to us that taxpayers can’t know how much this public agency is paying the broadcasters and doubly ridiculous that Click is letting broadcasters decide what to keep secret,” Peterson said. “If allowed, it sets a dangerous precedent against the public’s right to know how the government is spending its money.”
The newspaper originally requested copies of Click’s retransmission consent agreements with the broadcast companies after negotiations broke down between Click and Fisher, the corporate owner of KOMO, earlier this year.
The stalled negotiations caused Fisher to pull six channels off Click during the month of January, which affected Click’s roughly 22,000 subscribers.
Click and Fisher settled a new three-year deal in February, restoring the lost stations, but neither Click nor KOMO provided details about the newly negotiated fees.
However, Click General Manager Tenzin Gyaltsen complained in a Feb. 8 email to Fisher that the company had strong-armed Click to agree to “unreasonable terms” in order to get the channels back on the air.
In his March ruling, Culpepper said he worried that revealing Click’s contracts with broadcasters could have “the potential to damage Click.” The judge said he also had concerns that releasing the pricing information could have a “potential ripple effect” on programming fees elsewhere.
TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason said that if Click provided The News Tribune with unedited copies of Click’s checks to the broadcasters, it would reveal the very information that Culpepper’s ruling aimed to protect.
“The check amounts, coupled with the invoices, would clearly enable someone to determine the trade secret fee amounts in the retransmission agreements,” Gleason wrote in an email to The News Tribune.
Gleason said Click is complying with Culpepper’s order by letting the broadcasters decide which parts of the documents should be redacted.
“In this situation, specifically, we are under a court order that prohibits the city from releasing any records relating to the retransmission consent agreements without the prior consent of the affected plaintiff,” Gleason wrote. “The plaintiffs have consented to release of some of the responsive records only if in redacted form.”
The News Tribune is in the process of appealing Culpepper’s decision. The newspaper has asked the state Supreme Court to review the case.
Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209