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N.Y. Mayor Wins Cable Case

When it comes to cable TV franchises, New York's mayor, city council and franchise commission now know the answer to the question, "Who's in charge here?"

It's the mayor and the Franchise and Concession Review Committee — and not the City Council — a state court ruled last week.

Even though the ruling was an affirmation of mayoral power, current Mayor Michael Bloomberg must still recuse himself from cable matters. His company operates a cable network, Bloomberg Television, which is carried by Time Warner Cable, the city's largest operator.

Since the late 1990s, the New York City Council and the mayor's office have been squabbling over which governmental branch holds final-review jurisdiction over franchise renewals granted to TWC and Cablevision Systems Corp.

In a 1989 revision of the City Charter, the council sets the terms for cable-franchise negotiations. According to court documents, it gives the legislative body the authority to adopt an authorizing resolution to start cable negotiations.

The refranchising process began in 1993, when the council authorized a city commission, now known as the FCRC, to negotiate renewals with the two operators. The commission held 15 public hearings in the five boroughs, surveyed subscribers and talked with other city agencies about their cable needs.

Council balked

But when the commission told council members that the charter's language did not confer authority for a final council vote to approve the franchise renewals, members accused the mayor and the FCRC of a "back-room deal" with the MSOs.

The council sought an injunction from the New York State Supreme Court to bar the committee from approving the refranchise deals, but the court said the council had not exhausted its administrative remedies.

Refranchises for both TWC and Cablevision were approved in July 1999, when the New York State Public Service Commission approved the FCRC's action. The City Council then sued the PSC in state Supreme Court in Albany (a lower court in New York State), seeking to annul that vote.

But the court affirmed that the charter only gives the council power to authorize the start of negotiations. Subsequent discussions — and eventual approval — are the responsibility of the FCRC and the mayor, according to a court decision issued Oct. 22.

Council attorneys argued that the charter bars the legislative body from the initial selection of franchisees, but not from renewals. But the court said the City Charter explicitly bars the council from participating in any aspect of the franchise process once the authorization resolution is passed.