Public access TV cuts
anger Maui residents

Kalaniua Ritte said when he and a friend began a cable TV public access program as the "Hemowai Brothers" on Molokai about a year and a half ago, they wanted to provide native Hawaiian points of view on issues.

What they got was also a number of complaints.

"Some older Hawaiian guys, they never like the swearing. Some said we too close-minded. Of course, we get the rednecks saying this is America, and if you don't like it, get out," said Ritte, 27.

"But it's all good," he added. "Everybody entitled to their opinion. It really doesn't bother us."

What does bother Ritte and a number of other producers are moves in the state Legislature and on Maui to substantially cut the budget of Akaku: Maui Community Television Inc., the private nonprofit firm providing technical assistance and community cable public access programming.

Akaku has served as a soap box for people to express themselves. It's uncensored, providing airtime to conspiracy theories, astrology, pet programs, comedy and sports, as well as public affairs programs.

Under state administrative rules, cable companies are required to give 3 percent of their adjusted gross revenues to public, education and government-access channels.

Akaku has been the recipient of the PEG fees in Maui County -- about $750,000 in fiscal 2004-05 and $813,000 in the upcoming fiscal 2005-06 budget.

House Bill 784 and Senate Bill 959, referred to money committees in the state House and Senate, would reduce Akaku's budget by two-thirds and give the money to Maui Community College, the state Department of Education and Maui County.

To head off the potential passage of the bills, Akaku's board has put forth a tentative offer to provide 25 percent of its revenues annually to a consortium of public and private schools for three years, with an upfront payment of $132,000.

A draft of the proposal is scheduled to be considered by the board at 4 p.m. tomorrow at Akaku's main office in Kahului.

Akaku president Sean McLaughlin said he feels as if the board made the offer with a "hammer over our heads" and that the bills were politically motivated by those in Maui County who dislike anti-development views expressed by some producers.

McLaughlin said that during a lunch meeting a few years ago, Maui real estate developer Everett Dowling complained about cable TV programs that took an anti-development stance, costing him money.

Dowling acknowledged he had a hand in developing the bills and complained to McLaughlin about how a producer edited out testimonies of those supporting a Makena development and kept critical comments.

But he said the main motivation for Dowling Company Inc. backing the bill has been to help to support schools.

"I don't see it as a development issue at all. ... If some of the people who do the shows on Akaku criticize my project, that's nothing new," he said.

Dowling, a former member on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents and Seabury Hall, said his company has a history of supporting schools, including the development of Kamalii Elementary School in Kihei and Kamehameha Schools in Upcountry Maui.

He said he also is supporting several other education bills, including Iao Intermediate School's playground redevelopment -- a project to which he plans to donate $250,000.

Dowling and Kenneth Nomura, the state Department of Education's superintendent for the Central Maui Complex Area, said under the state cable franchise agreement education is supposed to get one-third of the revenues and hasn't been getting its fair share for a number of years.

"It's not right teachers are underpaid. We're short of classrooms," Dowling said.

"Here the money's earmarked for education, and the board decided they're not going to give it."

Nomura said money was given several years ago to develop a TV production studio at Maui High School.

"They cut us off five to seven years ago, so our equipment has become run down, and we're borrowing the equipment," he said.

Nomura said he's open to negotiating the fees with the board but hasn't seen any official proposal.

The state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs has opposed the bills and hopes the various organizations on Maui can settle the dispute without legislation, said state Cable Division head Clyde Sonobe.

"We believe that Maui should decide for Maui," he said. Sonobe said the department is willing to become a participant to help in arriving at an agreement.

McLaughlin said Akaku, which airs its programs on channels 52, 53 and 54, provides the equipment and technical training to close to 400 producers.

Ritte, 27, an aquaculture worker, said he's amazed some people are trying to cut Akaku's funding.

He said that he and his friend Hanohano Naehu have been able to produce programs on issues that otherwise would have had little public exposure in the county, including a march in Honolulu marking the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

"With this public access, it's amazing. It's one of the best things that's happened in years," he said.

Akaku: Maui Community Television

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