O.B. to pursue litigation over channels

Cable firm wants to move them farther down the lineup

O

n Monday, Old Bridge Township Council members weren’t willing to negotiate behind closed doors. Instead, they are willing to take their grievances to a court of law.

Early this year, council members approved an ordinance renewing the cable provider’s municipal franchise, which expired in November. In the past, council members and residents alike have expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s services, alleging that they are owed both additional service and past franchise fees. While the council made a move to deny the franchise last year, it was not voted upon.

If a community denies a franchise renewal, the issue would come before the Office of Administrative Law for review. According to the state Board of Public Utilities, which oversees New Jersey’s cable industry, no denials have yet been upheld.

When Cablevision representatives attended Monday night’s council meeting, they fully expected to negotiate with officials during executive session. Because the matter involves potential litigation, a closed session would be permitted, explained Township Attorney William Ruggierio. After discovering the fate of the township’s two municipal access channels, however, the council voted against going into the closed negotiations.

"They’ve been doing unspeakable things to the residents of this town," Councilman Roman Sohor said. "I definitely object to any behind-closed-doors discussion with these people."

"What needs to be said here needs to be said out in the open," added Councilman Reginald Butler.

Council members expressed concern over the future location of the township’s two access channels, 6 and 34, which serve the township and the Board of Education, respectively. As of March 28, Cablevision wishes to move the channels into the 70-range. According to Cablevision Vice President Tom Wolfsohn, the move would allow the provider to group similar channels, a service requested by its customers.

However, township officials allege that the channels would become inaccessible to many residents if the move was enacted. Owners of older television sets, which are not cable ready, and those without cable boxes would be unable to reach the needed range. These sets can only reach channel 62 at most, said Mayor Barbara Cannon, who added that her own television is able to reach the 70-range.

"We’re second class citizens on your cable network," Councilman Edward Testino alleged, adding that the company asked a paying channel, 41, for a move, but not the township.

According to Wolfsohn, the cable company is required by federal law to provide the access channels. While uncertain as to how access would be provided, he said that his company fully intended to comply.

"Everyone will continue to be able to see them. I’m not sure what the technological solution is; it’s being worked on right now," he explained.

Councilwoman Georgette Marinaccio suggested that the cable company back up its promise with a guarantee: free cable boxes to those residents who are unable to reach the channels. Council members ultimately decided to pursue litigation, enjoining Cablevision from relocating the channels. According to Sohor, the township may be joined in its efforts by other municipalities.

The effort may also resurrect the ordinance to deny the franchise, which officials plan to introduce Monday.

Sohor also brought up past dissatisfaction with the company, noting that the township did not receive bulk franchise fees and a list of residents who were not serviced by Cablevision, as requested this summer. Residents of the township’s Genoa section receive their service from the Monmouth County system instead, with community programming from Aberdeen rather than Old Bridge.

Wolfsohn, however, denied allegations that he or his company broke any promises.

"I’ve been here two times. Everything I’ve been asked of [during] those two times, I’ve delivered," he asserted, adding that he regretted the township’s decision not to negotiate.