Friday, December 16, 2005

"BellSouth case 'hypertechnical'"--Repeal!

The city of Lafayette filed its answer to BellSouth's appeal yesterday and Blanchard at the Advocate has done his usual commendable job of making the arcane aspects of the fiber issue at least accessible if not actually easy to understand. (He's laboring under the difficulty of explaining a case that even lawyers characterize as "hypertechnical.")

I've looked at the city's documents and they ARE very technical. The reporter does a great job of stating the basic points:
In July, Lafayette voters approved by a 62 to 38 percent margin a bond proposition authorizing LUS to issue the bonds

BellSouth has argued that the bond ordinance does not comply with state law passed last year to protect private companies from unfair competition from government: the so-called Local Government Fair Competition Act. District Judge Durwood Conque disagreed with BellSouth's argument, saying LUS had complied with state law as intended by the Legislature.
Various technical and even hypertechnical details are well-covered in the story and the filings contain even more. (I got to look up some Latin...it's been a long while since I had to do that.)

But what came through in reading the documents for me was the increasing level of frustration of the city attorneys. It's clear to me, reading between the lines, that they believe that BellSouth is trying to push each and every point just a little beyond the acceptable line. Many of the "technical" points deal with BellSouth's trying to shift deadlines, introduce new lines of argument illegitimately, and express its pique with the courts' actually following the law as written and intended instead of allowing BellSouth to reinterpret every line in the way that most benefits its profit margin. There is an unmistakably rancid stench rising from those crisp Xeroxed pages. The whole things stinks. BellSouth lost. Enough is enough; let us get about our business.

This all comes in the wake of an expanded sense of frustration among the people of Lafayette, and now, New Orleans, with the consequences of BellSouth's continued determination to prevent Louisiana cities from doing what they think best for their communities. Lafayette voted and this sort of legal obstructionism turns the courts, much against their will, into an instrument for frustrating the expressed desire of the people.

It isn't really the courts, however; if anything, the root problem lies in a mistake made by our legislature. That mistake was twofold. First, the legislature passed a law so technically flawed and fundamentally misconceived that it made itself an instrument of the incumbents' ill will. (Harsh? What would you call a law that acted to impose state limits on a single local government on behalf of well-heeled out-of-state corporations? One which desired to accomplish ends so contrary to established practice and the state constitution that it had to draft the legislative auditor (the legislative auditor!) to impose video regulations on the city of Lafayette that were constitutionally forbidden to the state's real regulatory body, the PSC? Regulations which NO other cable company has to concern itself with?) The second problem was that, implicitly, they trusted BellSouth. A law so convoluted and ground-breaking was enacted only after arduous line-by-line compromises by legislators and lawyers from both sides of the issue. BellSouth knows it isn't playing fair by pursuing litigation on the central question of a "pledge." It's not only the city that says so. Astonishingly, BellSouth's legislator, the "honorable" "Noble" Ellington. agrees with Lafayette. Ellington gutted a rural broadband bill to squeeze BellSouth's bill in after the filing deadline and put himself on the line by "authoring" a law written by corporate lawyers. Even he, even he, in a hearing of the Rural Broadband Council, admitted that he'd thought the matters over which BellSouth had been suing were dealt with in conferences and that he wished the lawsuits had not been filed. That's astonishing.

BellSouth has abused the legislature and the people of Louisiana. A misconceived law has been used to thwart the clearly expressed will of the people of Louisiana. While never intended to make life more difficult for New Orleans in its distress, it has had that effect. And BellSouth has shown no sign that it will step aside for larger interests; it has in fact made it clear that it will use its economic power against the city to achieve its narrow ends.

The Municipal Fair Competition Act should be repealed. It was badly conceived, has had absurd unintended consequences in New Orleans, and has been used by BellSouth and Cox to abuse the regulatory and legal bodies of the state. If we must have a state law about what local governments do, then let the state follow the well-understood, long-tested, and clearly workable pattern established to govern cooperative and municipal electrical utilities. They work and they do not lend themselves to abuse by legions of corporate lobbyists and lawyers. There IS a decent alternative to the current foolishness. Folks have suggested writing the legislators; that would make a good New Year's resolution.

Sometimes we make mistakes. And the legislature ought to admit this is one. It ought to take this gift away from BellSouth.

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