Waconia Patriot: FFM cited in story about Orono city council showdown over fiber proposal

Vote our way or be removed!

Friday, August 12, 2011  By Eric Serrano, Editor

Three Orono councilors told a dissenting colleague to follow along or step down from LMCC committee assignment.

Orono city councilors have told a fellow panelist and his resident counterpart that they must cast a vote as the majority directs or face replacement as the city's representatives to the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission (LMCC).

The action stemmed from an Aug. 8 council discussion following a presentation by LMCC representatives regarding up-coming cable franchise discussions with the area's sole provider, Mediacom.

Following that presentation, Orono Mayor Lili McMillan raised the prospect of the city council taking a formal stand against an LMCC effort to investigate the viability of establishing a publicly-owned fiber optic network. Dubbed TonkaConnect, the proposal has already gone through a market study phase.

Roughly three-fourths of the respondents to that survey said they would welcome the proposed network if it could save them money.

"I'm personally against spending any money on the fiber optic project," McMillan was quoted as saying in a blog post from the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota (FFM), Aug. 4. "What I want to do is send a message. I don't feel government should be in this," she said, according to the FFM post. She reiterated that sentiment during the council's Aug. 8 discussion.

Former Orono Mayor Gabriel Jabbour urged the council to pass "a strong motion" opposing the fiber effort, and removing the city from any connection to the TonkaConnect plan. He called the effort, "a waste of time," and an expense of "taxpayer money" on a plan for which he contends LMCC proponents have little understanding in terms of the technology that would be required to get the plan up and running. "Leave this to the private sector."

Orono Councilor Doug Franchot, who serves as one of the city's two representatives to the LMCC and serves as the latter panel's vice chair, countered Jabbour's contention that the TonkaConnect project was a foregone conclusion. "This fiber effort at this point is simply an exploration," of the proposal's potential, Franchot said.

The next stage of that exploratory effort, he said, is the development of a business plan that would yield greater detail on the viability of such a project and laying out potential funding sources. "It will separate fact from supposition," Franchot said.

The price tag for the business plan has been estimated to be $55,000. The LMCC's executive committee announced last week that it would recommend the full slate of LMCC commissioners forego any additional funding to the TonkaConnect effort until at least 2013.

"There are just an enormous amount of unknowns [surrounding the TonkaConnect effort]," said McMillan. "I think councils should debate whether or not there is a need to spend money on something that may or may not be viable."

Recently appointed Orono Councilor Dave Rahn said he, too, opposed the TonkaConnect effort. He challenged the interpretation of the resident survey figures. "What I got from the survey was 'if it'll save us money, yes.' This is something for private enterprise to me."

"I am opposed to this," freshman Orono Councilor Aaron Printup said. "It's not government's role. Police, sewer and water, roads, yes ..."

Franchot called the TonkaConnect effort a major step in establishing "necessary infrastructure" that will make those communities with fiber optic broadband more appealing to businesses and residents alike.
Printup asked Franchot whether he'd be able to vote against the TonkaConnect effort if it were to come to a vote before the LMCC.

"There's nothing in the [joint powers agreement between the 17 LMCC member cities] that says a representative can't vote as they feel is in the best interests of the community," Franchot responded.
"If the council majority feels a certain way, I think you have to ultimately follow those wishes, or step aside," McMillan said.

Franchot noted that the 2012 LMCC budget, slated for consideration Aug. 16, isn't likely to contain any provisions for funding the business plan.

LMCC Executive Director Sally Koenecke said that funding was available for the second phase of study if LMCC commissioners opted to utilize a portion of the budget's $60,000 contingency fund. However, she added, the LMCC's executive panel was recommending against that course of action.

That budget can't be enacted until it has been approved by a majority of the LMCC's member cities, she added.
Printup offered a motion stating that Orono isn't interested in pursuing the TonkaConnect fiber optic project and urged the city's LMCC representatives to cast votes against the project. The measure passed 3-1. Franchot opposed; Councilor Cynthia Bremer was absent.

"Let us know if you are comfortable voting in accordance with the council's wishes," McMillan told Franchot following the vote. "Let us know by the next meeting (Aug. 15)."

Printup asked the same question of the city's resident representative to the LMCC, Bill Wyatt.
Wyatt wondered whether TonkaConnect spending would be a separate item or part of the overall LMCC budget. Koenecke said she wasn't sure. "Some cities do want this."

"When I was a rep to the LMCD (Lake Minnetonka Conservation District) for Orono I asked [the council] what they wanted me to do," McMillan told Wyatt. "When you're a rep of the council, you do what they say. If you can't do that, let us know and we can get an alternate."

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