The South Washington County Telecommunications Commission no longer will air religious and other public-generated programming, opting to broadcast only professionally produced shows and content approved by commission staff.

The commission airs its content on three South Washington County-TV cable channels - 14, 16 and 18. Commission staff air live government meetings and produce shows related to local communities. The programming changes do not affect broadcasts of council and commission meetings in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, St. Paul Park, Newport and Grey Cloud Island Township. Those member cities fund the commission.

The nine-member commission's unanimous decision Thursday to alter its format was largely a response to programming objections recently raised by Cottage Grove City Council member Derrick Lehrke and a fellow critic of the city's planned construction of a new city government building.

Cottage Grove resident Kathy Lewandowski had sought cable TV time to present programming that challenged the city hall project, which has the support of four of five council members. Lehrke, the lone city hall project opponent on the council, said he wanted to host a show on SWC-TV.

Commission Administrator Fran Hemmesch rejected their requests. She said the commission does not operate a public access channel that accepts any citizen-generated programming. SWC-TV's Channel 14 is meant for community programming, but Hemmesch said that does not mean she will air "negative programming," including content that may be viewed as critical of the commission's member cities.

"I don't want to do anything that my member cities do not approve of because that's where we get our funding," Hemmesch said.

In a letter to commission members, Lehrke suggested the new policy leads to one-sided programs on issues being debated by local government bodies.

"Look up 'propaganda,'" Lehrke wrote.

The push by Lehrke and Lewandowski for access led to a review of the commission's programming and the approved changes.

Commission funding

Commission leaders said no tax dollars are used to support programming, and the cities have ultimate authority over SWC-TV. The commission office and studio suite is at 6939 Pine Arbor Drive in Cottage Grove.

The commission's annual budget is roughly $1 million. Comcast subscribers in the five member cities pay a monthly franchise fee to the cable company. Comcast in turn pays the area cities for use of right-of-way land used for the company's cable infrastructure.

The cities then use that cable revenue to pay for SWC-TV operations. Woodbury, which has the most Comcast subscribers, contributes about $627,000. Cottage Grove chips in another roughly $300,000. St. Paul Park's contribution is about $40,000 and Newport's is around $30,000. The sparsely populated Grey Cloud pays much less.

Any revenue the commission receives but does not spend is returned to the cities, Hemmesch said.

The commission produces content for channels 14, 16 and 18, but also has aired programming produced by other area cable commissions, such as a show about the city of St. Paul. In addition, the commission airs Washington County Board meetings, but does not receive funding from the county. Like city meeting coverage, the county meetings can be viewed on the commission's website.

The commission also airs school board meetings of the Stillwater area school district because part of Woodbury is in District 834, but SWC-TV does not get funds from that district, Hemmesch said.

The cable commission oversees Channel 95, known as the "NASA channel," but does not provide local programming for it.

South Washington County School District 833 funds and operates Channel 15, which airs local education programming. The cable commission years ago gave that channel to the school district, Hemmesch said.

Program changes

As a result of the commission's decision Thursday, cable viewers may notice some programming no longer will be aired.

All Saints Lutheran Church and Hope Community Church, both in Cottage Grove, used SWC-TV to broadcast religious programming. Commission member Craig Johnson of Woodbury said technology has improved to the extent that it is relatively easy for churches to live-stream services and other programming on their website, as an alternative to putting it on cable TV.

In addition to religious programming, the changes also affect a commission-produced show called "Political 411" that focused on the Minnesota Legislature. The show lasted about eight episodes this spring and was hosted by Karla Bigham, a former DFL state lawmaker from Cottage Grove. Bigham interviewed Republican and Democratic state legislators from Washington County and political operatives.

Hemmesch said the show was valuable and Bigham was an impartial host, but she only planned for it to be produced during the legislative session that ended last week. She took it off the air because she didn't want "any problems to arise," including accusations the show is partisan.

"It was good programming that didn't take producer time away from their other shows and that I thought would be informational for the public, and I believe it was," she said.

Bigham said she tried to be impartial as a host and felt bad the show would not continue next legislative session.

"I think it did a good job of informing people about issues going on at the Legislature," she said.

Directed by cities

The commission's programming changes are supported by mayors and administrators of the member cities, Hemmesch said. None of those cities have expressed interest in paying to support a channel that allows public access.

"We do what our cities tell us," said Roger Peterson, commission chairman.

Establishing a public-access channel for citizen-generated programming would require more staffing and equipment, Hemmesch said. Also, Peterson questioned some of the content that airs on public access cable channels in other communities: "Often you get a lot of weird stuff."

But the new programming format does not give the public an opportunity to express views that differ from city leaders, Lehrke said, and it essentially creates a "very expensive public relations firm for all the five cities."

"I don't think many people are aware of that," he said.

Hemmesch said any local residents who object to the programming changes could bring their objections to their member cities.

Plus, she added, they have another option: "They can choose to not pay for cable service."