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Novato Public Access Struggling to Stay Afloat Amid Budget Crisis, Layoffs

With less than $10,000 and no money to pay staff, NPAT's studio has been closed

Story published Friday, December 13 8am

By Karina Ioffee

Novato Public Access Television is in turmoil, with only $7,500 in available funds, an executive director recently fired, the studio closed and most employees laid off.

The community station held an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss its future, following the sudden departure last month of Executive Director Rick Tucker. NPAT airs public meetings, football games and other community programs, and provides equipment and training for residents. It supports itself with fees from Comcast and AT&T's U-verse.

But the organization appears to have never lived within its means, relying on an annual loan from the Novato Unified School District to balance its budget.

According to NPAT, the district is no longer fronting the station money, casting uncertainty over NPAT’s future. But Superintendent Shalee Cunningham said that was not true and the issue has not been discussed.

"They may have budgetary problems, but it has nothing to do with us," Cunningham said.

Novato Public Access has not made any of their financial documents, such as annual reports, publicly available. But according to sources familiar with the situation who refused to go on the record, NPAT’s top management was less than frugal with its funds and often “papered over shortages” with fictitious budgets.

According to multiple sources familiar with the issue, the nonprofit regularly overspent, then relied on a loan from the school district to carry it over until the next installment of cash from Comcast.

"There was a misunderstanding of how we would get through to the next pay period from Comcast once the money was exhausted,” said Pam Haessly, an office manager at NPAT who has been named the interim director following Tucker’s firing.

“If you're paid $30,000 a year, that's your budget and you live within your means,” she said. “That's what the studio needs to do from now on. That's how it always should have been."

According to tax records, Tucker was paid $89,000 a year, while the organization subsisted a budget of under $200,000 and needed to pay three other employees.

The group’s board of directors has not been forthcoming with information, referring all calls for comment over the past month to new board president Vance Ashe. Ashe, co-owner of Ashe Management Group, an IT systems consulting company, declined to say why Tucker had been let go or why the organization has not made its annual reports and other financial documents available on its website.

Employees, too, have been kept in the dark, only recently learning about the change in leadership. Then, this week, three employees found out that they were being laid off because the station could no longer afford to pay them, a decision that came as a shock to most.

"There's some dysfunction here for the transparency of the operation and part of it is understanding how this money was allocated," said Dean Kendrick, a consultant hired by the city of Novato to film council meetings.

Despite the shortage of funds, board members have vowed to keep the station running.

“There’s a lot of turmoil right now, but we’re not going to shut down,” said Nazario Ayala, an NPAT board member and local technologist. “Our goal is to keep NPAT operational and rectify our cash flow. We’re asking people for some time and patience.”

The organization will launch a search for a new director starting January 1. As it does so, NPAT faces many hurdles, including aging equipment that will cost up to $15,000 to replace. The equipment has never been replaced since the station relocated to the school district 2000.

Another issue is computers NPAT purchased for Novato High School's broadcasting studio in a partnership between the station and the school. According to Dave Fix, a recently laid off NPAT production manager, the original understanding was that the station and the district would share the equipment, making the computers available to the public for post production.

But, “we haven’t been there (at Novato High) for months,” said Fix. “I don’t know what happened, but the relationship between NPAT and the school has somehow soured.”

Novato High Principal Rey Mayoral said that "things stopped working" when Rick Tucker left Novato High about a year and a half ago and continued to disintegrate as NPAT struggled with resignations of various board members and dwindling funds.

"We don't want the relationship between us and NPAT to die," Mayoral said. "We just have to sit down and figure out how it will work. It's important for kids to have those skills and experiences."

At Thursday's meeting, the mood was tense with more questions than answers.

Would programming on local television continue if NPAT was shut down? Probably not, although online streaming would go on. Why was nearly $200,000 a year from Comcast not enough to run the studio and where was the financial trail for the past several years? No one could provide an answer.

Speakers interrupted one another, prompting Board President Ashe to threaten removing someone from the room for speaking out of turn.

As the tension escalated, Cody Dada, an attorney and owner Dr. Insomniac’s who was sitting in on the meeting, chimed in.

"You guys are running amok,” Dada said. “You need to act as fiduciaries instead of people concerned about maintaining your positions. It’s your responsibility as the board to make sure you have policies in place to prevent any wrongdoing. What I've seen here today is beyond what is prudent."

Chastened, the board, promised to do better.

Haessly took pains to see the silver lining in the difficult situation.

“I know there’s a lot of damage control we need to do, but people are stepping forward and they want to get involved,” she said. "There’s been tremendous contributions by the community and I want to invite even more people to get involved.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that NUSD was no longer loaning money to Novato Public Access. No such decision has been made, according to Superintendent Cunningham. Patch regrets the error.

If you've been involved with Novato Public Access as a volunteer, staffer or board member, we want to hear from you. What issues did you see in the organization and what can be done to improve them?

Bob Ratto December 13, 2013 at 12:32 PM
Classic failure related to poor internal leadership coupled with a lack of meaningful oversight. You are at "0" right now. Prepare a detailed and realistic budget, and come clean about what really went down (likely fraud), put it controls to ensure it doesn't happen again, and move forward.
Dave Robertson December 14, 2013 at 03:50 PM
Isn't it NPAT that tapes (major) public meetings and lets Novato stream them from their website? This is a necessary aspect of transparency of local government. This city needs to find the money - perhaps return some of their excess office furniture!
Carlos Castillo December 15, 2013 at 02:26 PM
Another terrific story, Karina! Keep shining the light in those dark corners. In these instances where the public's trust has been compromised and nothing is being done on the local level, we need the state attorney general or some such oversight authority to investigate and audit these questions of possible malfeasance.
Dave Robertson December 15, 2013 at 03:41 PM
I am not an NPAT insider - but it is clear that the city has allowed this organization to fall apart. By removing one of the true vehicles of transparency of our city government - it allows all the nonsense happening with this town go that much more unknown.
Craig Belfor December 16, 2013 at 11:12 AM
Now that an $89,000 monkey has been removed from their back, (not to mention the alleged waste this person to which this person was probably connected), this group can balance the budget. By the way, who is Dr. Cunningham? You didn't identify this person prior to quoting them. At least you've got a good director now. Pam's long record of community service and loyal dedication to this effort will qualify her for the permanent position.
Allen December 16, 2013 at 01:09 PM
It seems to me that a lack of transparency is usually to protect individuals who have been the problem. While it is a often a litigation risk for the community, it is more often simply not to embarrass those individuals. I believe unfettered transparency trumps all. I believe the community should withdraw all support until we get the answers we need in order to make the proper decisions going forward. Those who cannot remember the past . . .
Dave Robertson December 16, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Transparency is essential in local government matters. Local government rarely receives news coverage - especially when it comes to the actions and behaviors of elected officials. The few institutions left (like the Patch) are falling prey to lack of revenues, etc. This is unfortunate - as they are going the way of newspapers and eventually there will be no form of information left - unless we do something about it. Isn't that ironic? We have to demand of our city to keep up a service that is a principal means of transparency in our local government.
Allen December 16, 2013 at 04:02 PM
Dave, Of course, we need NPAT for the reasons you stated. I'm cynically assuming that the City will not pass up free Comcast money. I'm recently retired and love the Patch. We will need to replace it if it tanks.
Karina Ioffee December 16, 2013 at 06:45 PM
Comment by Trent Anderson: I was on the original committee that helped to create NPAT, and then on the NPAT Board of Directors for a short time. I had a difficult time understanding this then, and I still cannot remember exactly the reason why it is still this way today. Why was it that there had to be TWO public access stations in Marin, not just ONE. One in San Rafael, and one here in Novato. So, Novato is like the "step-child" of Marin, and if you live in Novato, and have Comcast for TV, you cannot watch any of the CMCM TV channels broadcast from San Rafael. I think it had something to do with the wiring, cable, old telephone companies, etc. For example, I live in Novato in Hillside Park, and AT&T is our primary telephone provider; but, just across South Novato Boulevard AT&T is not available, and it suddenly becomes Verizon or Comcast? Does anyone else think that there should be just ONE Public Access TV Station in Marin? CMCM TV in San Rafael is a much more active organization, a lot of paying members, a lot more and better programing, but I heard they are also not doing well financially?
Dave Robertson December 16, 2013 at 09:24 PM
It's a bit beyond my comprehension. Novato uses NMWD for water and the rest of Marin uses MWD for water. Novato is the only city or town using the old GTE/Verizon central office for telephone too. I can't imagine that (GTE) Verizon waned a single CO when the rest of Marin is serviced by AT&T; it must be terribly unprofitable. The question for me is ... why is Novato considered separate from Marin in many ways? It sounds to me that Comcast will keep on carrying NPAT if NPAT can continue to send them a signal. If NPAT unplugs itself, then Comcast will likely drop funding also.
Michael Eisenmenger December 17, 2013 at 12:48 AM
In response to Trent: NPAT was formed before CMCM (not a stepchild by any mean, simply just smaller in scale). Both are non-profit PEG (public, educational, governmental) providers that manage the services for their local 'franchise authority'. In the case of NPAT, that's the City of Novato. CMCM works under contract for the Marin Telecommunications Agency, a JPA representing 11 jurisdictions in Marin. Novato chose not to join the MTA and therefore has maintained a separate video franchise with Comcast and AT&T. This is a source of confusion for some cable viewers as parts of unincorporated Novato receive CMCM's Marin TV rather than NPAT. All PEG centers in CA like NPAT and CMCM are facing challenging fiscal times, partly due to the recent statewide video franchise changes that changed many rules pertaining to PEG. It's incorrect to indicate that Comcast or AT&T provide any funding to NPAT or CMCM, the PEG fees are paid by local cable subscribers and simply pass through Comcast/AT&T. The requirement for PEG channels and PEG fees were part of the original Cable Act and were key to ensuring there would be locally originated and non-commercial programming available to local residents that served the public, educational and governmental needs of the community.
M. Calwald December 17, 2013 at 12:59 PM
The Novato City Council will be giving Michael Frank a $6600.00 raise---$550.00 more a month this month tonight---in addition to his already fat salary of six figures a year---AND his $400.00 monthly car allowance, $50.00 a month "internet allowance" for his home---coupled with his $664,000 interest only (at $188.00 monthly payment)...There is enough money to pay for NPAT, the City Council just wastes our money with Michael Frank.
M. Calwald December 17, 2013 at 01:00 PM
Michael Frank should be ashamed that he is taking such a lucrative salary package and letting NPAT go defunct. But then again, it is all about him and raising taxes to pay for his lifestyle.
Roger December 17, 2013 at 02:14 PM
The IJ today says Comcast is still giving NPAT its full $200,000 budget. NPAT just needs to live within its budget. The private sector knows how to do that or die, but government bodies seem to live in a world without the normal rules applying to them.
Dave Robertson December 17, 2013 at 03:29 PM
Roger: So true! I spent many years in the private sector working for silicon valley companies and you lived within the money you were allotted alright - or you had a lot of explaining to do! To get more money you had to explain practically every dime of expenditure. And these companies were far from broke. +++++++++++M. Calwald: Even the private sector is not giving out raises like they are giving to Michael Frank. And with a group of "direct reports" less than 85 - he is not what I would call a high level executive. They didn't coin the phrase "public servant" for nothing! I read that the city whines and moans for money, begs people to retire early and get a whopping $25K lump sum payment - but they give Michael Frank a fat raise in addition to a 4000/month car allowance and $50/month internet allowance? What is he housebound and ill to the point where he cannot go into his office? If he has a $664K interest only loan - he is getting the money at the prime rate - virtually unheard of anywhere. What is so special about this city that we throw money around like it is candy - and then cry poor when it comes to raising more? What is so special about this town that we spend well in excess of $15M for an office building (which must cost a bundle to maintain!) for 84 employees - many of which the city would love to get rid of? If Novato goes bankrupt, we (the citizens) are the ones that will really suffer and end up paying for it. Our "structural deficit" is "man-made" overspending.
Marin County December 17, 2013 at 04:13 PM
The County would like to express its support of NPAT and CMCM in playing a huge role in the democratic process. Airing public meetings is critical to the dissemination of policy decisions and historical record of our advancement as a society. To Pam Haessley and her board, and to Michael Eisenmenger and his board, thank you for what you do.

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