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Cloquet authority to call the shots at CAT-7 comes into question

 

August 16, 2019

Contributed photo

CAT-7 coordinator Eric Lipponen shuts down the CAT-7 channel at the cable access TV studio on June 14. The station has been off the air since then because there have been technical challenges in the move to the new Cloquet City Hall building.

Cloquet city officials got some unexpected news last week. It appears that Cloquet city administrator Aaron Reeves had no authority to make any decisions regarding the CAT-7 cable access station - including closing and moving the studio, cutting staff hours and spending reserve funds to equip the city's new council chambers for live streaming video - because the authority for the management of CAT-7 staff and resources lies with the cable commission.

Former Carlton County commissioner and longtime "Harry's Gang" co-host Patty Murto presented the council and Reeves a copy of a joint powers agreement (JPA) immediately before the city council meeting Wednesday, which was live-streamed to the city's website. The document was signed by former Cloquet mayor Dave Hallback and top elected officials from the other three communities - Scanlon, Esko and Carlton - that are served by Mediacom and the CAT-7 cable access channel it funds.

"It took me probably two hours of homework to recognize and realize that you guys probably should have done yours," Murto told the council, explaining that the joint powers agreement they held in their hands was passed by all the member communities three years ago.

The JPA gives decision making power to the cable commission directors. The power it gave to the Cloquet city administrator position was position of secretary/treasurer: to serve as fiscal agent without compensation, and to be responsible for all financial transactions for the cable commission. The joint powers agreement clearly states that cable commission money may be spent by the cable commission, which should also set the budget.

"Flummoxed" is a word one could use to describe the reaction from city officials.

Reeves didn't start working here until October 2017, and said he had never seen or heard of the joint powers agreement in his time here.

Not a single councilor recalled passing the joint powers agreement, although Roger Maki, Kerry Kolodge, Steve Langley and Lara Wilkinson were all councilors at the time (however, Maki was absent for that vote).

The minutes of the May 3, 2016 meeting show that the vote was unanimous. The same minutes also show that the councilors voted 6-0 to remove section 2.3.01 of the city code as it relates to the cable TV commission.

That didn't happen, although it should have been done after the council resolutions were published in the city's official newspaper, the Pine Journal, on May 12, 2016.

In response to an email from the Pine Knot News, city clerk Kristine St. Arnold said the section should have been deleted but wasn't, due to a clerical error on her part. It was one of the first ordinances she did. St. Arnold confirmed that the ordinance was published, but the website was never updated - although she planned to do that Tuesday morning.

Murto got her copy of the joint powers agreement from Thomson Township clerk/treasurer Rhonda Peleski.

Wearing a T-shirt that read "Assuming I'm just an old lady was your first mistake," Murto rattled off a list of bylaws contained in the JPA, including that the cable commission shall assume "all responsibility for community cable television programming" within the geographic area it covers, enforce the franchise with Mediacom, and employ people it deems necessary to accomplish its powers and duties and make such contracts, grants and take actions "it deems necessary and appropriate to accomplish the general purposes of the organization." The commission is also supposed to conduct an annual independent audit of the books and a report on that in writing to its members.

Murto pointed out that the JPA states that a director (on the cable commission) shall serve until the successor is appointed and qualified, "which means that all of those who are now seated are actually still members," she told the council.

While the JPA may say the cable commission is in charge, that certainly hasn't been the reality.

According to the city of Cloquet website, http://www.cloquetmn.gov, the commission hasn't met since at least January 2017 (there's an agenda but no minutes) or maybe even October of 2016, the last time there are minutes posted for the cable commission.

According to the city of Cloquet website, Cloquet has four members (Pete Radosevich, Nathaniel Wilkinson, Kathy Hanson and Frank Yetka), Scanlon has two members (James Pratt and Mike Berthiaume) and the website shows one vacant spot each for the city of Carlton and Thomson Township, although Murto said Peleski was a director for Esko and she is hoping theThomson Township board will appoint her as the second director.

According to the JPA, Cloquet is supposed to appoint three directors to the cable commission, with Thomson Township, Carlton and Scanlon appointing two directors each. Frank Yetka is also the city attorney for Cloquet and drafted the JPA.

During the meeting, mayor Roger Maki said he thought there were only Cloquet people on the commission.

Reeves said during and immediately after the meeting that if a JPA had been enacted, the city should not have been treating the CAT-7 coordinator as a city employee and providing city benefits, although those costs were entirely covered by the cable commission fund.

In a story published Jan. 18, the Pine Knot News reported that cable coordinator Eric Lipponen's full-time salary was roughly $58,000, plus benefits, which cost another $28,000 - he was cut to part-time in January and his benefits removed. Additionally, $27,600 was paid from the cable TV fund to the city of Cloquet from the franchise fees in 2018, which finance director Nancy Klassen said goes into the general fund to pay for administration and finance. The city had budgeted $28,700 to come out of the franchise fees for 2019. The city has always taken a portion of the cable TV fund to pay for its services, Klassen said. The budgeted payment to the city adds up to approximately 28 percent of the estimated revenues for the community access channel.

Murto wants the council to start untangling the changes Reeves implemented at CAT-7. She called directors from each community, and said they were unhappy that the city and Reeves had not reached out before making such sweeping changes to CAT-7.

Undoing the changes may not be possible in the case of the vacated studio, which had been housed at Cloquet High School for decades, rent-free.

Jana Peterson

Patty Murto informed the City of Cloquet that it had overstepped its authority by closing and moving the CAT7 studio and reducing staff hours according to a joint powers document signed in 2016.

Cloquet High School principal Steve Battaglia told the Pine Knot News Monday that space has been made into an additional special ed classroom, and was much needed space for the school. He also said in today's world of more stringent security, he wasn't really comfortable with CAT-7 workers and others having access to the school anytime.

For now, there are lots of questions and few answers regarding the cable access station and how it should have been run for the last three years.

On Wednesday morning, Reeves said he is still waiting for information requested from Mediacom after last week's meeting.

"This will be on the next work session agenda for discussion and to get direction from the council on how they would like to proceed," he wrote. The next council meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 20.

Reeves' last meeting with the city will be Sept. 3; he is leaving to take a different city administrator job in Hudson, Wisconsin.

 
 

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