Councilman David McCauley speaks out against a renewal of the city's franchise agreement with Optimum. / Photos by Katie Kuba

City’s franchise renewal agreement with Optimum advances, despite staunch opposition from two council members

BUCKHANNON – The franchise renewal agreement between the City of Buckhannon and Optimum has cleared its second – but not final – hurdle.

By a majority vote, Buckhannon City Council on Thursday approved the second reading of Ordinance 464, which renews a franchise granted to Optimum – formerly known as Suddenlink – for the construction and operation of a cable/internet system within city limits for a period of 10 years.  

The first reading of the ordinance took place at council’s June 15 meeting, when city council voted 5-2 to renew the proposed franchise agreement with its TV cable, phone and internet provider, Optimum. Optimum, like Suddenlink, is owned and operated by Altice USA. The current franchise agreement expired June 30, 2023, and the new agreement is for a decade, beginning July 1, 2023, and extending through June 30, 2033.

Thursday night’s vote was also 5-2, with councilman CJ Rylands and Councilman David McCauley dissenting for a second straight meeting. When the item came up on the agenda, city recorder Randy Sanders made a motion to renew the franchise agreement on second reading, which councilman David Thomas seconded, but before the vote, McCauley said he had scripted some prepared remarks for council to consider.

“This proposed franchise agreement has not had any legal review by anyone from the City of Buckhannon,” McCauley said. “Our city attorney is an employee for Altice that owns Suddenlink/Optimum. At the very least, Buckhannon should table consideration of this agreement until it’s been properly reviewed by a legal representative working for our city.”

In 2022, city attorney Tom O’Neill accepted a position as senior director of government affairs for Optimum in West Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky. As a result, O’Neill has not presented the proposed ordinance which would authorize a franchise renewal.

McCauley also highlighted a sharp admonishment delivered by West Virginia Public Service Commission Chair Charlotte Lane when the PSC issued a ruling fining Suddenlink $2.24 million and ordering it to open a West Virginia Call Center. McCauley noted that Lane had said there was “no excuse for [Suddenlink’s] conduct except to increase its bottom line, doing so with a blatant disregard for its subscribers.”

In addition, he noted that Optimum is operated by the same company that owned and ran Suddenlink, Altice/Altice USA, which he said is a multinational company based in the Netherlands. Finally, McCauley took issue with the length of the franchise renewal.

“The more recent franchise renewals by Buckhannon were for five to seven years,” he said. “Is it prudent to give even a longer franchise term to Optimum/Suddenlink/Altice given their recent egregious conduct?”

At the June 15 meeting, Rylands said he’d had multiple issues with the reliability of Optimum/Suddenlink’s service at his properties.

In response, former state senator Clark Barnes, who is employed by Orion Strategies and handles public relations for the telecommunications company, said he couldn’t contest the information McCauley presented.

“Councilman McCauley, I can’t debate anything that you’ve brought up,” Barnes said. “We would assume that your information is correct, particularly financial information – that is public knowledge.”

Former state senator Clark Barnes with Orion Strategies handles public relations for Optimum. He was on hand Thursday to urge council members to move forward with the 10-year renewal.

Barnes did, however, address some concerns raised by McCauley, Rylands and councilwoman Pam Bucklew at the prior meeting.

“Optimum does take customer service very seriously,” he said. “We’re investing millions in improving our customer experience, including the ongoing installation of fiber connectivity across the service area and the addition of a West Virginia-based Call Center located in Teays Valley. It’s all happened since the episode you’re referring to … and all of the performance indicators are showing we’ve had significant improvement over the past two years.”

Barnes said the number of complaints filed with the PSC against the telecommunications company since it rebranded itself as Optimum had plummeted and claimed that as of June 1, only one complaint had been filed against Optimum, and that complaint was related to a right-of-way issue, not a service-related problem.

He said that while he would never discourage any municipality from securing a lawyer to review the agreement, it was written “in laymen’s terms and not ‘legalese.’”

“I’ve been involved in the closing of 15 other franchise renewal agreements with [governmental entities],” Barnes said. “Some have not vetted it legally, and others have reviewed it very sincerely.”

Most recently, Barnes reviewed the proposed agreement “word by word” with legal counsel for the Town of West Milford, he said, and no substantive problems were uncovered – only minor clerical errors like spelling and capitalization.

“Yes, Charlotte Lane gave us a slap in the face, and it resulted in a $2.2 million dollar fine,” Barnes said, “but recently Chairman Lane gave us a pat on the back and publicly made the comment that things have vastly improved. Given the improvements in billing, in maintenance and in investments [Optimum has made in the state], I hope you consider moving ahead with this.”

Mayor Robbie Skinner, Sanders, Thomas, Bucklew and councilman Jack Reger voted in favor of the renewal, and McCauley and Rylands opposed it. The final reading and possible passage/adoption is scheduled for council’s next regular meeting Thursday, Aug. 3; the ordinance authorizing the renewal would go into effect Sept. 2.

In 2020, the Upshur County Commission renewed its nonexclusive franchise agreement with Optimum – then Suddenlink – for a term of five years.

News Feed

Subscribe to remove popups, or just enjoy this free story and support our local businesses!