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?