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Public radio talks resume in secret

Allyn Harvey

County leaders remain close-lipped about the ongoing struggle over control of public broadcasting in the Roaring Fork Valley, though talks will resume tonight in Basalt.

Pitkin County’s Translator Advisory Board will meet in a closed session with representatives from the valley’s two local public radio stations, KAJX in Aspen and KDNK in Carbondale. On the table is Colorado Public Radio’s efforts to take control of two frequencies used by the local stations to reach listeners outside their immediate broadcast area.

Denver-based CPR operates five stations around the state and has been trying to open its sixth in Glenwood Springs since 1996. When it announced its plans, CPR met stiff opposition from KAJX and KDNK, which would have to abandon signals that extend their broadcasts to much of the valley. The county responded by filing applications with the Federal Communications Commission for the same frequencies CPR is seeking.

Tonight’s meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Basalt Town Hall, is at least the third closed discussion on the topic. The first came last fall, when the Board of County Commissioners met in executive session and apparently signed a secrecy agreement with Colorado Public Radio.

County Attorney John Ely denies any knowledge of a signed agreement, and he says he was not present at last fall’s executive session when the board decided to collaborate with CPR to keep the public out of the debate. A spokesman from CPR last week confirmed the existence of a written agreement.

Individually, the county commissioners who were on the board last year have their reasons for supporting secret deliberations about the future of public radio in the valley.

Commissioner Mick Ireland, the only attorney on the board, said the county needs to keep discussions about the situation under wraps because they may involve sensitive information key to future negotiations.

“We don’t want them to know our negotiating stance,” he said.

Ireland maintained that if CPR comes up with a way for three public radio stations to coexist in the valley, negotiations will be necessary to squeeze concessions from the newcomer. Eventually, he said, the county may decide that a negotiated settlement can never be reached, at which point he and others involved in the debate will be free to discuss the situation publicly, he said.

BOCC Chairwoman Dorothea Farris, like Ireland, said that even though there is no contract on the table, secrecy is necessary just in case one is presented at a later date.

“I think we’re pretty much committed, to the degree we can, to protect the sovereignty of our local stations,” she said. “We don’t want Denver news to be our local news; we want local news to be local news.”

The ongoing discussions, she said, are aimed at deciding how to respond and what potential negotiating stances might prove successful in dealing with CPR.

Commissioner Leslie Lamont said she thought the county was obligated to secrecy because the current discussions include an engineering study paid for by CPR. “It wasn’t the public that paid for this document,” she said. “They went ahead and did it themselves.”

CPR said it would share the study results with the county only if they could be kept private, Lamont said.

When asked why CPR can demand its document be kept secret, while anything submitted by developers, regardless of who pays for it, is public, Lamont said she believes the rules are different for land-use applications.

“I don’t think we’re violating the sunshine laws [on open meetings and disclosure of documents] because this was a private analysis paid for with private money,” she said.

Commissioner Shellie Harper was even less sure about the reasons for secrecy than Lamont. She noted that radio broadcast licensing is very complicated, with applicants having to deal with local, state and federal regulators.

As for CPR’s study, Harper said there are things about it that disturbed commissioners, but they wanted it reviewed by the Translator Advisory Board before making any decisions.

For now, Harper said, she is following her staff’s recommendations.

“I don’t understand the need for secrecy,” she said, “but at this point [Public Works Director] Stan Berryman is telling me it’s appropriate.”

The attorney who represents The Aspen Times said the county cannot sign a secrecy agreement with CPR or any other private organization and use it as justification for meeting in closed session. He did, however, concede that the sunshine laws give the county quite a few justifications for closing out the public, including discussion of matters that may pertain to future negotiations.


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