Monday, September 19, 2011

CITY SURVEILLANCE PROMO: Sparks outrage and demands for equal access

COLUMBIA, 9/19/11  (Beat Byte) --  A publicly-funded Columbia City Channel video that features Karen Taylor, the founder of Keep Columbia Safe -- a private organization that lobbied for public safety cameras during the 2010 elections -- has sparked a heated controversy between members of Keep Columbia Free (KCF) and city officials. 
 
The video -- a promotional piece entitled "Downtown Surveillance Cameras" -- has outraged red light and surveillance camera opponents, who say City Hall has no business using taxpayer money to fund private lobbying campaigns.   
 
"I’m hoping you can provide me with information outlining the steps our organization, Keep Columbia Free, should take to have a similar promotional video directed and produced by city staff, hosted and promoted on the city website, and financed by the city," KCF president Mark Flakne emailed City Channel administrator Don Cizek.
 
Cizek apparently referred the matter to city public information officer Toni Messina, who on Tuesday tried to explain by calling the video production a "duty" authorized by the City Council and funded in the City budget. 
 
"It is not private advocacy or an opinion piece, although the individual who brought the issue to voters' attention is prominently featured," Messina emailed Flakne.  But Messina left herself open for additional criticism, both with her explanation of Taylor's prominent role and by later taking the video down from the city's website with no explanation. 
 
"That was an unusual situation due to inability to schedule other internal spokespersons," Messina explained.  "I hope this is clear and that you understand we will not be scheduling a video shoot with your organization." 
 
But Flakne and his group say they don't understand "the department’s inability to schedule other internal spokespersons.  Who did you ask to take part?  Was this film made on a deadline of some sort?" Flakne emailed Messina Wednesday.  "If so, why was there a deadline?  How does your department’s inability to schedule internal spokespersons justify the use of a private, partisan spokesperson?" 
 
Flakne's point references the highly-politicized nature of the so-called Proposition 1 campaign, during which downtown surveillance cameras were widely considered a "wedge" issue in the 2010 election -- a way to "wedge out" so-called "progressive" candidates opposed to the measure, and "wedge in" so-called Chamber of Commerce candidates who supported it.  
 
That City Hall -- which should represent itself as a politically non-biased entity -- would fund the video only reinforces that concern.
 
"I also take issue with your statement that the video in question 'is not a private or an opinion piece,' since Ms. Taylor was allowed to outline the work of her private group and give several of her own unfounded opinions." Flakne told Messina.   "Equal access to public institutions is a bedrock in the foundation of our American Republic and our beloved democratic rights.  The City Channel is no exception."  

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