Politics & Government

Appeals court sides with The News Tribune in cable contracts case

The public has the right to know how much the City of Tacoma pays broadcasters to retransmit their signals over the city’s Click cable network, the Washington State Court of Appeals has decided.

In a decision released Tuesday, the three-judge panel from Division II rejected the broadcasters’ arguments that the retransmission fees are trade secrets that should be shielded from public view.

The News Tribune fought for access to the contracts, arguing in court that they pertained to public business and should be disclosed.

“Tacoma News persuasively argues that the public has a right to know how Click, a city-owned enterprise, is spending public funds,” Judge Rick Melnick wrote for the unanimous court.

“Disclosure in this instance is in the public’s interest because the information involves expenditure of public funds.”

The court’s decision overturns a ruling last year by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper, who decided the contracts were trade secrets and should not be disclosed.

Karen Peterson, executive editor and senior vice president for news at The News Tribune, hailed the appellate decision as a victory for the public.

“When you do business with a public agency, your business is public,” Peterson said. “It seems pretty straightforward to me, and the broadcasters should have expected nothing less. The ruling is a reminder of the strength of our state Public Records Act.”

Attempts to reach representatives of the broadcasters, which included KOMO, KING, KONG, KIRO and KCPQ, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

CBS Corp. also was a party to the lawsuit.

“We are analyzing the decision and considering our options,” said Chris Ender, CBS Corp.’s executive vice president of communications.

The case stemmed from a 2013 impasse between Fisher Communications and Tacoma that prompted the broadcaster to withhold the KOMO television signal from Click customers.

Fisher turned the signal back on after the city agreed to pay it more money.

The News Tribune, which covered the dispute, later requested the contracts between Click and Seattle broadcasters. City attorneys decided the contracts were public records, but the broadcasters went to court to block their release.

Attorneys for the broadcasters argued that disclosure of the records would harm their businesses by giving other cable systems inside information that would allow them to negotiate lower fees.

Lawyers for Click also opposed disclosure, saying broadcasters might be reluctant to sign deals with it because it could not guarantee confidentiality. That might lead to fewer channels and increased rates for Click customers, they argued.

Culpepper sided with the broadcasters.

The News Tribune appealed his decision to the state Supreme Court, which kicked it back to the Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in July.

In Tuesday’s decision, the appellate panel said it did not find the broadcasters’ or Click’s arguments compelling, calling them “conclusory and speculative.”

Click attorneys were reviewing the Court of Appeals ruling but “our intent at this time is to release the information,” said Chris Gleason, spokeswoman for Tacoma Public Utilities, which runs Click.

That could happen as soon as next week, Gleason said

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune