By PAUL GONZALEZ
NEWS PRESS STAFF-WRITER
TV Santa Barbara is taking Cox Communications and Santa Barbara County to trial over the rights to a $1 million endowment created by Cox Communications in 2001.
TVSB operates community access channels 17 and 71, TVSB Voice and TVSB Culture. The community access television station has studios and offices at 329 S. Salinas St.
In 2001, the county entered a cable franchise agreement with Cox, which was adopted through a county ordinance that included a $1 million Cox grant made “to establish a capital endowment for public and educational access equipment and facilities” and “to provide for the long-term support of (public and educational) access channels within the County and cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria” according to the terms of the Public Education Capital Endowment.
The county formed a nonprofit corporation, Santa Barbara Fund for Public and Educational Access, to manage the endowment.
In 2017, the county ended its agreement for TVSB to serve as the “Access Center” designated by the endowment to receive the funds “concurrently with the termination of the Cox-County Franchise Agreement and the change in cable franchising laws,” according to a trial brief prepared by TVSB attorney Jared Katz.
Although TVSB is not mentioned specifically in the endowment, it is still the proper beneficiary because it is the only local public and education access channel, Mr. Katz said, adding that TVSB was created specifically to fulfill the charitable purpose of the endowment.
“TVSB was created by the county to meet that need…the only way to do that is to give it (the endowment) to TVSB,” Mr. Katz said.
The county’s television station, CSBTV, provides mostly government programming.
Mr. Katz argued that based on the “plain language” of the franchise agreement, the court should order Cox to pay the balance of the $1 million endowment to TVSB because the franchise agreement did not specify that the endowment would expire with the franchise agreement and that the money can only be used for public programming.
SBFPEA petitioned Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne for permission to end the trust and divide the principal and interest of the endowment as follows: $500,000 to the county for projects related to government and emergency communications, $250,000 to the county to have Cox build a fiber link to the county’s facilities at La Cumbre Peak, and $250,000 to Cox to build fiber-optic network facilities to approximately 400 homes in communities next to State Route 154 between North San Marcos Road, Painted Cave Road and Paradise Road.
“SBFPEA and the County agreed to settle their dispute with Cox by distributing the ‘PE Capital Endowment’ as proposed in SBFPEA’s Petition if the Superior Court grants this Petition,” said Santa Barbara County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni, who is representing SBFPEA.
“An operating agreement between the County and TVSB expired in January 2017, and we believe that TVSB is not a proper claimant,” said Mr. Ghizzoni.
According to the county’s trial brief, the most reasonable interpretation of the duration of the endowment “is that it was to coincide with the duration of the Cox-County Franchise Agreement,” and that interpretation is consistent with the language creating the endowment.
“The endowment was intended for ‘long term capital support of PE access channels,’ not permanent support,” according to the brief, which points out the endowment provided capital support for public and educational access channels for more than 15 years.
“Community Media Access Centers like TV Santa Barbara play a vital role in giving voice to communities lucky enough to have them,” said Erik Davis, executive director at TV Santa Barbara. “TVSB has been an important part of the local landscape since 1974. Whether it’s advocating for freedom of speech, providing true local programming, supporting over 250 non-profit organizations or teaching youth and seniors about media literacy in the digital age, TVSB plays a meaningful role in the lives of many local residents. This is what we do, the role we fill, and why we have worked tirelessly for the last 10 months to find partnership and compromise in lieu of litigation.”
First District Supervisor Das Williams hopes the parties will settle out of court.
“I remain hopeful that the county and TVSB will reach a settlement that could provide for funding of TVSB and media services for the county. TVSB provides a great public service and I’d like to support it, but the public safety equipment that these funds are proposed to be used for is vital. I think there is a balance to be struck,” said Mr. Williams.
“While this is primarily a local government issue, I am hopeful that TVSB, Cox, the county and the courts will come to an agreement that works in the best interests of our community,” added Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara.
Mr. Carbajal is a former 1st District Supervisor. He received campaign contributions from Cox.
Trial is set for March 2.