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They had the power and gave it away

If St. Petersburg City Manager Robert Obering and the City Council had exercised minimal foresight in May 1989, the 80,000 cable TV customers in the city today would be paying $15.95 a month for their basic service. After two rate increases by Paragon Cable since, they now pay $17.95. On Dec. 1 they'll begin paying $19.95, all apparently because of the stupidity of the city government. Vision cable customers in North Pinellas pay $13.95 for 45 channels. Under heavy lobbying from the industry, Congress in 1984 took away the power of cities to regulate cable rates. But St. Petersburg retained strong leverage, the power to grant or not grant a franchise. When Paragon asked for a renewal of its franchise in 1988, the existing franchise had five years to run. Why should the city give away the public's only leverage over rates?

Yet that's what it did. A committee under Chief Assistant City Manager Larry Arnold started the Paragon ball rolling. City administrators at first wanted to give Paragon 20 more years! After public criticism it was reduced to 15 years. Before that year's spring elections candidates were asked their plans for the franchise. Charles Shorter said, "I would insist on competitive proposals." Leslie Curran said, "I believe we should seek competitive proposals." Bill Griswold said, "The franchise for cable TV in St. Petersburg should go out for bid." Yet when the time came to vote on extending the franchise five years before it expired and without any bids, every member of council except Ed Cole voted yes.

When the latest rate increase was announced, Obering said, "There's nothing we can do about rates." True. The reason is that he advised giving away all the leverage in 1989.

"The only way I see where we can have some balance is to have some competition between cable providers," said Shorter last week. Why didn't he say that in 1989, before he gave away the store for 15 years?

"I think people have had enough," said Curran. True, and in part because she preached competition before the election and voted against it afterwards.

Last week, fretting under the latest increase, the council asked the city attorney to look into ways to bring competition to the market. Is there any wonder that the public has trouble taking this council seriously?

When your next cable bill arrives, send it to the city manager and council. They asked for the higher rates.