Tags:There's trouble at URTV. Who -- and what -- is responsible for that trouble? The answers depend on who you ask.
Launched in 2005, Asheville's public-access channel is "a televised forum for legal, noncommercial speech; a place where you can express yourself creatively at little or no cost," according to its Web site.
In exchange for annual dues and initial training fees, URTV members get access to the station's equipment and a place to air their programming. The lion's share of URTV's revenue comes from the PEG fee charged to Charter Communications cable subscribers and funneled through the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, which distribute a portion of the money to the station.
In the past year URTV presented 1,400 hours of diverse first-run programming representing many facets of the community. Local producers averaged 21 hours of new programming per week, according to the station's figures. Shows run the gamut from political forums to religion to underground music to plants.
But the nonprofit has been riven by internal disputes concerning membership, programming and the appropriate role of the channel's board. And in recent months, those conflicts have gone public, with dissenting board members asserting that Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse and the board's leadership have violated the state's open-meetings law.
The first public hint of trouble came when two board members -- Richard Bernier and Davyne Dial -- took issue with an oath Garlinghouse administered to the board Jan. 15. Further controversy erupted when Garlinghouse prohibited former URTV producer John Blackwell from filming a board meeting for broadcast; a subsequent memo from board President Jerry Young barred board members from speaking to the press on behalf of the organization.
These battles have culminated in an attempt to remove Bernier and Dial from the board. And at a Feb. 17 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, county officials raised the possibility of withholding URTV's funding (see "Saving Lives Trumps Money" elsewhere in this issue).
Meanwhile, outside events pose further threats to the station. URTV's agreements with the city and county expire at the beginning of next year. And changes in state law opening cable service up to competition mean that the PEG funds -- part of Charter's exclusive franchise agreements with the city and county -- could disappear at any moment. All this leaves URTV facing a conflicted present and an uncertain future.
Neither Garlinghouse nor Young nor other board members who support them responded to multiple requests to comment for this article. As a result, Xpress has had to rely on statements made by them in e-mails to the board in order to represent their position on these issues.
Fights over membership, station direction
Dial joined the board last July, voted in by the station's members. Bernier came on in September, appointed by the board to fill a vacancy.
"I was approached by Pat [Garlinghouse] and asked to come on the board," Bernier reports. "I told her I hadn't ever sat on a board before. She said, 'Don't worry -- just come in, vote for what I've got to present, and it will look good on your resumé.' She also said, 'Richard, as a board member you will never, ever tell me what to do.' I don't think she had a right to say that to me."
According to URTV's bylaws, "The board of directors ... shall have and may exercise all powers of the corporation, except those powers reserved to the members by law, the articles of organization or these bylaws."
Dial, meanwhile, says she's observed similar behavior by Garlinghouse, whom she once considered a friend. "The pattern was to get as many people on the board that she felt were in her pocket, so she wouldn't have to answer to us," Dial asserts.
Bernier describes himself and Dial as a collective "thorn in the side" of management over issues the two feel aren't being addressed.
"I have nothing personal," Bernier maintains. "I want URTV to succeed; I want it to be the beacon on the top of the hill that shines out freedom of speech, and that simply is not occurring."
One big issue for the two critics is the nonprofit's membership. Not enough has been done, they assert, to keep existing members and attract new ones.
"That's a major concern," says Dial. "Some of it is that people go in and find out that [producing programming] is a hard thing to do." But beyond that, retaining and expanding the membership is just not a priority for the board, these two maintain.
"I don't think enough efforts have been made to keep our membership in a high status," says Bernier. "You can support URTV without being a producer."
"They don't want members there who aren't producing," charges Dial.
And as a result, says Bernier, there's been a lack of community outreach that has contributed to a drop in memberships.
"We are desperate for programming," Dial asserts, adding, "That's completely due to the declining membership." And even when producers don't follow the rules, she continues, "You don't need to ban people forever. It should be the duty of a manager to get beyond personal issues or conflicts so that that producer still stays."
Support for management
URTV board Secretary Ralph Roberts, who also declined to comment for this story, spoke to Bernier's concerns about programming and membership in a Feb. 2 e-mail to board members.
In response to Bernier's call for giving members an easy way to get their programs into the lineup, Roberts shot back: "They have an easy way: Just bring the shows in and give them to [Director of Programming Curt Arledge]. What's so hard about that? You bring, URTV plays it. Period."
As for the concerns about membership numbers, Roberts wrote: "If they aren't going to produce, we don't want them back. URTV is looking for people that can and will produce. That is our product, not coddling members."
In the same e-mail, however, Roberts acknowledged, "We need shows!" and encouraged Bernier to take a more active role in production.
John Robinson, who's produced the station's underground-music show Mount Dungeon for two years, believes the station's overall situation has improved. "While we may have less membership than when we started, a lot more of them are producing," says Robinson. "[The station has] been well-run, and there's been no drop in quality."
Robert Eidus, who hosts Plants and Their Friends and has been producing since 2007, concurs. "When I started, we didn't have Studio B; we didn't have streaming," he points out. "URTV's been increasing the quality of its programming. We get many more hours of good, original programming than a lot of stations of this size." And indeed, the current URTV schedule shows less use of Community Bulletin Board filler and more local programs than a September 2007 schedule.
Dial, however, believes that recent increases in annual membership dues -- first to $50 last July and then to $75 in November -- were a mistake. "To me, given our economy at this time, that's wrong," she asserts. "I feel like this is one reason they're viewing us as a problem ... because they're getting an argument and they're having to justify this."
According to the station's Web site, students and seniors pay just $25 a year.
Dial also feels the station has failed to build the community partnerships she feels are essential to URTV's long-term survival. "We should have done programming for [Mission Hospitals], programming for the VA [Medical Center], programming for UNCA," she maintains. "We need to build partnerships with every entity in the community. We need to be partnershipping all over the county. We could be a lot more important to the community than we are."
URTV has forged a number of community partnerships. An internship program with A-B Tech involves 12 students; the station has also teamed up with Catalyst Productions (which produces art-instruction videos) and programs like LEAF in Schools and Streets, Outward Bound's UNITY project and the Mediation Center's Organized RHYME. Last October, the nonprofit secured a $25,000 grant from the e-NC Authority, a state program working to improve telecommunications and Internet access statewide. The grant enabled URTV to begin streaming programs online (at http://urtvweb.com) and launch a video-on-demand service.
Above the rules?
Although some of these issues have been simmering for a good while, matters have to come to a head in the past month. First, the oath administered to board members in January contained a controversial confidentiality clause (see "Questions Arise Over URTV Oath," Jan. 28 Xpress). Garlinghouse and Young issued a statement agreeing to change that clause, but then video emerged of Garlinghouse asserting that no one could film a board meeting for rebroadcast, saying, "You have no right to put it on TV or the Internet" -- a misrepresentation of the state's open-meetings law, according to N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych.
And in a Feb. 5 e-mail to board members, Young asserted: "It is my understanding that no board member is authorized to speak to the press on behalf of URTV, either to print publications or on Web-based sites."
But URTV's agreements with both the city and county require the nonprofit to adhere to open-meetings law. And according to Tadych, board members retain full First Amendment rights unless they explicitly agree to give them up upon joining the board.
(The station is also bound by state open-records law. However, URTV management has not responded to repeated Xpress requests for the minutes of its board meetings, which are public records. Many of the minutes are available on the station's Web site, but some are not.)
Four days later, on the morning of Feb. 9, the board's Executive Committee -- including Roberts, Young, Treasurer Joe Scotto and Parliamentarian Bob Horn -- met in closed session and voted to recommend dismissing Dial and Bernier.
Yet when Xpress reporters arrived just before the scheduled meeting time, URTV's offices were dark and the doors were locked.
Letters informing the two of the committee's decision cited no reason for it. But on Feb. 14, Young posted a message on URTV's Web forums supporting the decision and taking aim at Xpress' previous reporting on the controversies:
"Over the past month, issues were raised that -- while starting as minor matters easily and properly addressed by the URTV board -- have been made into a cause célèbre by two board members, a handful of disgruntled ex-producers and one segment of the local press," he wrote. "Recently, two URTV board members have chosen to make their case to the press rather than to the URTV board at a URTV board meeting. A number of misinformed statements have been released relating misinterpretations of the actual situation. The result has been that one agenda-driven perspective is covered rather than a balanced report on the issues -- or, in this case, nonissues.
"The URTV board wholeheartedly disagrees with the disinformation stated as fact by a very few individuals and the erroneous interpretations of our bylaws and procedures. The overwhelming majority of us support our executive director, Pat Garlinghouse, fully, and this support has been earned many times over by her during the term of her employment. Without Pat, there would be no URTV."
Young didn't specify which parts of Xpress' reporting, or of Bernier's and Dial's statements, he believes to be in error, and he has not been willing to talk to this reporter -- even though his Feb. 5 e-mail stated that only he was authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the organization.
Meanwhile, another e-mail by Roberts -- this one from Nov. 20, 2008 -- propounded a view of the board's proper role that differs radically from Dial and Bernier's vision.
"Nonprofit boards exist primarily to help the organization achieve its mission," Roberts wrote. "Not to run the organization, not to interfere with staff decisions, not to impede operations in any way, but simply to positively support the mission and to help in the raising of funds and community support for the organization. Everything else is of lesser importance."
Ironically, the same e-mail praised Bernier for bringing more political perspectives into the station's coverage of the November elections.
Sometime in the coming weeks, Dial and Bernier will lay out their case before the full 10-member board, which will then vote on whether to dismiss the two. However, the letter to Bernier asserts that the matter will be handled in closed session, which state law allows only for discussing personnel (i.e. paid staff) matters or property acquisitions or receiving legal counsel.
In Dial's view, the whole fight reveals a deeper attitude that she feels is dangerous for URTV's future.
"We need to be beyond these issues to deal with matters of sustainability and outreach, and we're not," she maintains. "What this action looks like to me is that it reveals an attitude of disrespect for the laws and rules that have been put into place. It's like, 'You have to follow the rules if you're a member or mere producer, but we don't have to follow the rules. We're the people in charge: We can make up our own rules as we go.' Which is exactly what they've done. The rules aren't for them; they're for the little people. They think they don't have to pay attention to what the management agreements with the city and county say."
And Bernier asserts: "I've only asked questions and amplified the community's interest at board meetings, brought some issues to light. What have I done wrong? They've yet to advise me of that. I'd like to know what I've done wrong."
Others, however, take a different stance. While admitting he "doesn't get really involved in the politics" of the station, Eidus says he has confidence in Garlinghouse and URTV's management. "[Operations Manager Jonathon Czarny], Curt [Arledge] and Pat are all exceptional human beings -- it's not in them to do things that are incorrect, not intentionally," he maintains. "I've got full faith in their integrity. I can't say the same about their opposition. This is taking up valuable time and energy."
Robinson, meanwhile, says he doubts the critics' motives, noting that his own dealings with management have been positive. "I know most of the people making these complaints," says Robinson. "They either want to run URTV themselves or they want more say than they're entitled to. The troubles we are facing have absolutely nothing to do with the management."
The clock is ticking
In the midst of all this, several other issues loom. First, the nonprofit's current funding agreements with the city and county expire at the beginning of 2010 and will have to be renewed or renegotiated. The controversy surrounding the station has already sparked concern on the county's part. At the commissioners' Feb. 17 meeting, County Manager Wanda Greene said she'd been unable to contact Garlinghouse, and board Vice Chair Bill Stanley raised the prospect of withholding some of URTV'S funding.
Asheville has also taken note of the turmoil. City Council member Bill Russell, the liaison to URTV, said he'll be attending the channel's March 19 board meeting to "have some pretty frank, open discussions about their charter and bylaws. It's always disappointing to see a board that receives city or county funds in turmoil like this. It shouldn't be like that."
Second, changes in state law mean that Charter (which declared bankruptcy Feb. 13) could lose its monopoly on local cable service if another provider (such as AT&T) decides to enter the market. And if that happens, the local PEG funds would be no more. Instead, all service providers would pay franchise fees that would go straight to Raleigh and be distributed as state government saw fit.
For Robinson, the impending loss of PEG funds is URTV's greatest challenge. "We need to be focusing on that," he maintains. "We need to be looking into other sources of revenue. Everything else is pretty good: We have a station that's running smoothly and provides services to a lot of people."
Bernier shares that sense of urgency, though he's more cynical about the station's current status. "We need to look at evaluations; we need to see where we are," says Bernier. "We have a countdown, and I can't stress that enough. We must be on top of things and not be dealing with basic issues that should have been resolved years ago. This day is coming -- we need a backup plan. We don't have one."
Still, he hopes the station -- which he feels has been an amazing meeting place for diverse perspectives -- can survive these challenges and move forward.
"URTV is a melting pot," says Bernier. "When I came to URTV I got to know Davyne. Her political beliefs are very different from mine, but we became friends through that melting pot. I'm thankful that she's on the board with me, and I feel that this a good example that this the best place where we can bring everyone to the table like this. It's a sad day that we're going down the road that we are."