[Marin County] Editorial: Grand jury is right about joint powers agreement

The formation of joint powers agreements make a lot of sense for a collection of small towns, such as exists in Marin. They enable towns to share powers, skills and funds in collectively addressing issues and community projects.

But there are flaws.

The 2018-19 Marin County Civil Grand Jury has pointed one out in its scorching appraisal of the Marin Telecommunications Agency, a joint powers agreement that was formed to address issues involving cable companies’ use of public rights of way and the start of Marin’s public television programming.

What the grand jury found, as detailed in its report, is the JPA has been an under-the-radar public agency that focused on making sure the county and member cities and towns get their fair share of the public franchise fees charged and collected by cable companies such as Comcast or AT&T. It also provides some financial oversight of Marin’s public television channels.

Novato is not a member of the agency, choosing to handle the funding tasks and community television oversight on its own.

In recent years, Larkspur also broke fee from the agency, deciding to handle the work on its own.

In addition, as the report, “Marin’s Telecommunications Disconnect,” the accounting function of the agency is diminished as more and more households are choosing to forgo cable connections.

The report details this little-known agency’s failure to address issues that it should have made priorities. Among them, seeking available state and federal grants that could help close the so-called “digital gap” in the county, where areas where there are concentrations of lower-income households have less access to internet connectivity than other parts of the county.

The grand jury’s summation: “Marin has been short-changed by a lack of telecommunications leadership by county and municipal officials.”

Because of this lack of leadership, local government has let corporate providers call the shots.

The MTA has been in a position to play a more active role than simply accounting for local revenue.

At one time, the MTA had greater oversight over local cable rates and services, but Sacramento, where corporate lobbying had more success, removed that task from local government in 2006.

Since then, other than providing some oversight over the Community Media Center of Marin, MTA has done little but collect and distribute franchise revenue, at a cost of close to $200,000 for a part-time staff.

Due to its low profile, MTA gets little public attention.

Its membership includes representatives from the county and each of the member cities.

The grand jury recommends replacing it with a citizens advisory committee to provide greater public leadership. Creating a public panel comprised of people with some expertise and/or interest in telecommunications issues could be a catalyst for helping close Marin’s digital divides.

The grand jury points out that the MTA has missed opportunities to do more than keep track of revenue.

For instance, the county, not MTA, worked to improve internet service to West Marin. And while areas such as San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood looks for ways to improve connectivity, possibly by tying into the fibreoptic system that Lucasfilm built, MTA has not been in the forefront of that effort.

The grand jury is right. It is time to take a closer look at the MTA. Does the job of collecting and distributing revenue really need to cost ratepayers $200,000 per year? We think Marin should either get more for that outlay of ratepayers’ dollars or roll back that cost to the true expense of the agency’s bookkeeping duties.

June 27, 2019

Marin Independent Journal

By Marin IJ Editorial Board