CONYERS -- Rockdale County's Department of Community Affairs and Innovative Programs is working to draw up a policy governing the use of county resources to film programs for Channel 23, the county's public access cable television channel.
Tonya Parker, director of Community Affairs, said the policy is needed in order to treat all such requests fairly and equitably.
The need for a policy apparently emerged during the primary election season after the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce was told that the county would not tape a forum sponsored by the Chamber.
Katy Zahradnik, vice president of the Chamber, said the business organization traditionally had sponsored political forums that were taped by the county and aired on Channel 23. However, this spring they were told the county would not be able to tape any forums.
"The event would be a Chamber-sponsored event," said Zahradnik, "but we have generally used the county facilities and they, in the past, have agreed to tape it as a community service for those who could not attend."
Zahradnik said the Chamber is now working to schedule a forum later in the fall in advance of the Nov. 6 General Election. That planning is in the early stages and no details have yet been worked out, she said.
David Shipp, chairman of the Chamber's Governmental Affairs Committee, said the county's unwritten policy in the past has been to tape and air the forums as a community service. He said if the county had decided to develop a written policy, then groups should have been notified.
"I just find it amazing that never before has it been an issue, and there hasn't been a specific amount that has been discussed of what it costs to tape these things," Shipp said. "It doesn't cost Rockdale County anything to air programs on Channel 23, which is provided for public access from Comcast for Rockdale County.
"My question is, what is the policy for this channel -- is it not a public access channel but a government propaganda channel?"
Shipp said the Chamber has conducted forums as a community service and not to promote any agenda of its own.
"We have gone to great lengths never to endorse a specific candidate; we have gone to great lengths to make these forums fair and for the public's benefit and for their information. My assumption was that when Congress, the federal government, created the ability for these cable companies to have these channels for local communities that they were just for that reason, for public information."
Parker said her department is not trying to limit access to Channel 23 but wants to make sure that access is "fair and consistent." She said her department has limited manpower resources for taping of local programs and there are costs associated with taping, particularly after hours and on weekends.
"If, in fact, they decided to tape it and find their own resources to tape it, we have no problem at all airing that on Channel 23," she said.
Parker said requests from other groups for taping programs have been declined and her objective is to be consistent and get a policy in place.
Parker said she is researching other jurisdictions' policies to help develop a policy for Rockdale County. She said she plans to have a policy in place prior to the next election cycle.
In the meantime, Rockdale Commissioner JaNice Van Ness said she will work with Parker to develop a policy for Channel 23. She also said she has challenged the county to explain why a policy is needed now when one was not needed in the past to tape the Chamber forums. Van Ness said she pointed out that Chairman Richard Oden was allowed to air a "Positively Rockdale" program and was told that the commissioners would be allowed to sponsor a program of their choosing. Van Ness said she has chosen to sponsor the Chamber forum.
"I'm just trying to push the envelope so far that they can't renege on it, or they'll look really bad," she said.
Van Ness made the sponsorship offer in an email to Shipp, Zahradnik, Oden and Commissioner Oz Nesbitt on Monday.
"Per my conversation with (County Attorney) Qadar Baig, there is not a reason that we cannot have a debate as we have in years past," Van Ness said in her email. "I am willing to 'sponsor' the show so that our public can be fully informed. I am sorry that there has been any question at all regarding this issue. I continue to promote Channel 23 as a public access channel for the people of Rockdale County. The affiliation with the Chamber is a great partnership, but especially because of the non-political intent of the organization and well-run debate forum. Please let Tonya Parker and I (know) what date works best for the debate. In the meantime, I am writing a policy for the use of the channel in conjunction with Mrs. Parker."