Members of Asheville and Buncombe County's new public-access TV station, URTV, are still smarting from the departure of its general manager, Kurt Mann, last month. Last Thursday afternoon a number of them gave the station's board of directors a talking-to on the matter, voicing support for Mann and the job he was doing, and calling for more transparency -- and foresight -- from board members.
During a long, pre-meeting comment period, URTV member Mark Bloom said Mann's departure has "left the station in a lurch. The timing, one month after the station first aired, was bad. And I understand you're just now getting a list of requirements for the job together now, which is a disappointment. Frankly, I'm disappointed by the lack of planning."
Mann, who apparently was universally esteemed by the station's more than 350 members for his energy and dedication to the station, had a one-year contract set to expire November 1. During a closed-session meeting on Sept. 8, the board voted not to renew the contract. Informed of their decision, four days later Mann announced his resignation.
The precise reasons why the board had decided to let Mann go will not be known anytime soon, due to the confidentialilty of his personnel file. Attempts to pry the justification from board members on Thursday went unanswered.
"Kurt's personnel file was, is, and will remain confidential," asserted board Chairman Mark Wilson.
Again and again, members cited the value of Mann's links to the community as a great loss to the station.
"Given Kurt's ties to the community, it's almost like they've cut the string and the whole thing is unraveling," said member Debbie Ryder. "This decision has created a huge vacuum. I wonder if they've thought about the impact this will have on both the short-term and the long-term."
URTV was launched Aug. 1 after more than six years of planning and efforts to develop a public-access television station. The station's inception was dogged to some degree by public concerns about the possibility of air time being co-opted for use by one political persuasion or another and the chance of profanity or obscenity being broadcast. (Station members pay $35 in exchange for the privilege to produce, tape and air programs.) A misperception that financing for the station would come from public sources (or surcharges on cable bills) also was in circulation. (URTV is paid for, in part, by Charter Communications in return for the company's use of public rights-of-way for its cable lines. Memberships and fundraising account for the rest of station funds.)
In light of that scrutiny, URTV member Wally Bowen said Mann's departure was poorly timed.
"What I'm concerned about is this happening so soon after the launch of URTV," said Bowen. "Unfortunately, there is a small handful of people in this community who would like to see URTV fail. There are people in this community who feel like their cable bills are higher because URTV exists, and that's simply wrong-headed. So, be very careful about the decisions you make and how you present them to the public."
Dude, where's my Robert's Rules of Order?
While attentive enough in its back and forth with members, the nine-member board seemed to demonstrate a lack of control over procedure during the Sept. 28 meeting. Board members were easily ruffled by their questioners, and often appeared unaware of each others' duties and the details of their posts, including the length of individual terms. During a discussion of the search for Mann's replacement, one board member even took a call from a pizza delivery person.
The current visibility is something new for the nine-member board, whose prior meetings have attracted only a sprinkling of members and interested citizens. URTV members videotaped the meeting, but board member Katina Turner asked that the videographer have board members sign a release before the meeting coverage is broadcast on URTV. As a nonprofit, 501(c)3 corporation, URTV is not bound by the same disclosure rules as local government, and ex-officio member Robin Cape said she would consult with Asheville's attorney about the board's responsibility to station members and the public at large, but said it could take a month to get the answer.
Meanwhile, station member Bowen said the grassroots nature of programming at URTV calls for a greater degree of transparency.
"I think it's a little inconsistent for members of the URTV board, which is dedicated to creating First Amendment space on the cable, to not be willing to have their voices heard. If there is any board where there ought to be openness and a willingness to have their voices heard, it is the URTV board."
The board posted a job description for Mann's replacement at the URTV Website (www.urtv.org) last Friday. The application period ends Oct. 20. But if the station's outspoken members are right, filling his shoes will be anything but easy.
"I hope that you will find someone who's not just a producer themselves, who is not just an administrator, but someone who represents the value of reaching out to people and helping them feel that, perhaps, instead of just being a consumer of media and exercising their First Amendment rights to use the clicker, they are able to become a producer and see what actually happens behind the camera," said member Rich Terry.
Station member Charles Thomas was alone in his unqualified praise for the board. "Boards do hire and terminate contracts. That's their jobs," said Thomas. "It was informative to me that the decision was unanimous. It was informative to me that Kurt decided to resign after that, rather than serve out the term. ... I appreciate the confidentiality that a personnel decision has to be kept with. I wanted to come here tonight to say that I support your work and appreciate it."
Information about the URTV board's next meeting will be posted at the station's Web site.