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Cable Subscribers to Get Rebate in Proposed Accord

Times Staff Writer

The city of Santa Ana and its cable TV provider have reached a tentative agreement, possibly ending a 15-month-old contract dispute that has led to a 33% rate increase for subscribers, officials said Saturday.

Under the proposed settlement, which the City Council will consider in executive session Monday, Comcast would credit current subscribers with the $4.45 monthly surcharge they have been paying since last March. The surchage is for services the cable company was not providing but claimed it would soon have to under its franchise agreement.

The tentative settlement, reached after months of negotiations, would release Comcast from several obligations of its contract. City officials say that recent court decisions and the cost of lengthy litigation leave them little choice but to make the concessions.

“We’re resentful of having to amend the contract with someone who wrote the contract with us,” said Mayor Daniel H. Young. “We face the reality of either doing that or pursuing an expensive lawsuit that our attorney thinks might be risky at best.”

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But members of the Santa Ana Cable TV Advisory Board voted unanimously to recommend that the agreement be rejected, and board Chairman Mitch Davis sent a letter to City Council members this weekend outlining the group’s objections to the proposal.

“The city is conceding several items while receiving nothing in return,” Davis wrote. “All the concessions by Comcast are for items . . . which they are already contractually obligated to provide.”

The board members were particularly upset with the proposal to credit only active Comcast subscribers with the $4.45 monthly surcharges. Subscribers who recently canceled or who moved away would receive nothing, even though they may have paid the charges for almost a year, Davis said.

“This money is considered by many residents to have been illegally extorted,” he wrote.

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Davis said the board also felt that the proposed settlement gave Comcast too much control over local programming with no guarantees of quality or public access. And most important, he said, is that by settling with Comcast, the city is letting the company know that it will not go to court to enforce its franchise agreement.

For months, the city had argued essentially the same thing: that Comcast, when it took over management of Santa Ana’s cable franchise in 1986 from Group W Cable, also assumed the obligations of its existing franchise agreement.

In December, 1987, the city began assessing a $1,000-a-day fine on Comcast as long as it failed to comply with contract provisions that required it to pay:

* $2 million to equip a new TV studio for the city.

* $468,000 to the city each year for public access, educational and local government broadcasting.

* $200,000 for a network linking city agencies.

* An unspecified amount to create a system linking cable television networks at community colleges and in other cities for educational programming.

In response, Comcast sued Santa Ana, claiming that the contract provisions infringed on its First Amendment rights. Two months later, the company raised its rates by $4.45 and asked subscribers to call City Hall to complain about the “unjust and unreasonable” requirements.

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Efforts to reach Comcast on Saturday were unsuccessful.

City Manager David N. Ream briefed cable board members last week on the proposal. In addition to providing credit to current subscribers, the settlement would release the company from its obligation to equip the TV studio and reduce the number of linkages it would set up with other cable networks, board members said.

It would also give control of the city’s local government channel--formerly KCTY, on Channel 3 in Santa Ana--to Comcast, which claims it can provide at least the same quality programming for far less than the $468,000 it had been paying the city.

KCTY, which formerly broadcast the semimonthly City Council meetings, went off the air March 31. The city said it could no longer afford to fund the station because Comcast had not paid the local programming grant for about a year.

May Supports Plan

Councilman Ron May said Saturday that he supports the proposed settlement.

“I want to put this thing behind us,” he said. “We’re getting something and giving something. . . . I want the City Council and community events back on television as soon as possible.”

May said that Ream had briefed him on the settlement but that he could not recall specific details.

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Davis disputed May’s contention that the city was getting anything in return for its concessions to Comcast.

“What is the city receiving? Not a damn thing that they don’t already have,” he said. “They want to settle because they’re not certain they’re going to win.”

Mayor Young said he understood that the advisory board is frustrated because the city apparently is giving in on some terms of its contract with Comcast.


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