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Little accountability, oversight at WCTV

February 25, 2013

The town’s contract renewal negotiations with Comcast have been scarred during the last year by a controversy surrounding the town’s cable access station – putting a spotlight on a rarely-scrutinized entity in town that collects a substantial amount of the public’s money and yet plays largely by its own rules.

According to their most recent financial documents, from 2011, Walpole Community Television, which broadcasts all Town Meetings, School Committee meetings, Selectmen’s meetings, local athletic events, and a handful of locally-produced shows, is sitting on more than $1 million in cash that has been collected over the years through a tax on all town cable subscribers.

The cash has accumulated and sat untouched, while town and school officials argue that WCTV should have been using the money for much-needed town technology upgrades.

Instead, between 2010 and 2011, the WCTV Board of Directors used part of the money to pay themselves and to give themselves free cable television subscriptions.

Meanwhile, WCTV is a lower quality cable access station than many other community cable television stations. In most neighboring towns and in most communities throughout the state, cable subscribers enjoy a wide range of news, political, historical, and cultural programs, aired at all hours of the day, oriented toward their community and produced by community residents from their local community television stations.

Some communities, such as Newton and Needham, even have regular news programs in high definition, hosted by local residents. Many community television stations also take a more active role, offering technology seminars, free training, internships, and a variety of other multimedia services to residents as well.

WCTV has not had an active internship program, held a technology seminar, or held a training session for residents in many years. Documents obtained by the Walpole Cable Advisory Board show that a whopping two residents, beside Board members, were listed by the organization as show “producers” in 2012. On their own IRS 990 forms, they reported having zero volunteers in 2011.

Few residents watch WCTV’s programs, except the occasional politicos who view town government meetings.

Under the provisions of the federal Cable Communications Act of 1984, which allows communities to negotiate cable service in their towns directly with cable providers, Walpole requires both of the town’s cable providers, Comcast and Verizon, to fund a cable access station in the community.

Both local providers pass the cost of subsidizing WCTV on directly to consumers through a PEG (public-educational-government) tax on their customers’ cable bills.

WCTV currently operates three low-definition cable channels in Walpole – a high school channel, a government channel, and a regular public access channel.

Cable subscribers essentially pay about $50 per year in a tax on their cable bills for three channels that are underutilized by the town and have few viewers.

Even though they derive most of their revenue – now more than $400,000 per year – from a tax on local residents, WCTV is under surprisingly little oversight by the town. Under the organization’s bylaws, Board of Directors meetings are not open to the public. Their documents are also not subject to the state’s Public Records Law, although their IRS 990-forms, required as a non-profit, are publicly posted on the Mass. Attorney General’s website as with all other non-profits.

Walpole town officials, including Cable Advisory Board members, hope to change all that during this year’s Comcast negotiations, and reforms are already underway. But the changes have met some resistance from WCTV Directors.

The Board’s annual election in January, open to all cable subscribers, resulted in two relative outsiders – Kathy Hasenjaeger and Daniel Ryan – being elected to the Board of Directors to help usher in changes. Ryan and Hasenjaeger defeated incumbent Board member Jack Lee, who was running for re-election; Michael Power, one of WCTV’s founding Board members and a former Walpole teacher; and Recreation Committee member Dennis Ricci, who was also running as an outsider.

Ryan and Hasenjaeger were elected with the help of several town officials and board members who showed up to help secure their wins.

The other current Board members are President Bill St. George, Treasurer Guy Giampapa, and Paul Clerici. January’s election was for two seats on the five-member Board – one seat left open by the departure of Board member Charles Sudhalter, and the other Lee’s seat. Under their bylaws, Directors serve staggered terms of office.

Although WCTV does have a tradition of opening their elections up to all cable subscribers on an annual basis each January, they are not required to by their bylaws.

WCTV’s bylaws specifically state that “members of the Board of Directors shall be nominated by the Board of Directors.” That means that cable subscribers in Walpole, despite shelling out a significant amount of tax dollars each year in their cable bill, are not actually entitled to vote for the Board’s membership.

But disturbingly, shortly after the election of Ryan and Hasenjaeger to the Board last month, St. George and the other members attempted, behind-the-scenes via email, to expand the Board to seven members, to include the two runners-up in the January election, Lee and Power.

The intent of the expansion, in the eyes of town officials, was to dilute the influence that the two new outsiders had on the Board. The effort was quickly abandoned after town officials expressed concern.

In an interview with 180, St. George admitted that the attempt to expand the Board, without first involving Ryan and Hasenjaeger, was a mistake.

“We apologized to both of them,” St. George said, referring to Ryan and Hasenjaeger.

St. George said the Board agreed to bring the issue to a Board vote at a later time, probably after the cable negotiations are complete. St. George noted that the WCTV bylaws allow the Board to determine its own size, with “not less than five nor more than nine” members.

He said it would not be feasible to go through a public election process, as was done in January, to elect new members.

“We can’t just have an election every time we turn around,” St. George said.

Power, reached by 180, said he knew nothing of the behind-the-scenes effort to get him on the Board and had been out-of-town while that issue apparently played out. Power said he wanted to get back involved with WCTV, having served on the Board during the first few years of WCTV’s existence. Lee is also out-of-town, according to his son, and did not respond to an inquiry.

According to the organization’s IRS-990 information returns, filed each year with the IRS by every non-profit organization in the country, Giampapa, Clerici, St. George, and Sudhalter each received $1,375 in compensation in 2011, and $750 each in 2010. Lee, who joined the Board in 2009, was the only member not to receive any compensation. None of the Directors received any compensation before 2010 or after 2011.

Under pressure from the town, the payments stopped last year.

According to the 990 forms, despite pocketing a salary, St. George spent an average of only one hour per week devoted to the organization’s work between 2010 and 2011. He became President in 2012, replacing Sudhalter.

On their annual financial statements, WCTV also reported spending $2,374 in 2009 and $3,560 in 2010 on an expense described as “reimbursements – cable,” which St. George confirmed was reimbursements for the Board members’ personal cable television subscriptions.

St. George told 180 that the WCTV Board felt that the free cable subscriptions were justified so that the Board could watch the cable channel they oversee. In retrospect, he said the payments were a mistake.

“That’s been rescinded,” St. George said.

He did not clarify if the money has also been paid back, and did not return multiple voicemail messages left for him several days later seeking further details.

Norfolk Cable Corporation, in Norfolk, Mass. is the only other cable television station in the area that gives their Board of Directors any sort of compensation. NCTV paid two members of their Board in 2010 and 2011, with one member pocketing $14,804 in 2011. The organization’s total payroll, including staff, was $40,054 in 2011. WCTV’s total payroll in 2011 was $155,862, including two full-time staff members and two part-time employees who assist in filming town board meetings for the government channel.

WCTV’s financial statements also show that they spent $3,500 in 2010 and $7,125 in 2011 on an expense described as “Board of Directors fees.” It is unclear what this money was used for. This expense did not appear on any WCTV financial statements from prior years.

WCTV also reported spending $3,695 in 2005, $8,239 in 2006, $9,029 in 2007, $9,550 in 2008, $10,780 in 2009, and $1,220 in 2010, for a total of $42,513 over six years, on an expense that is described as “special events.” This expenditure did not appear in financial statements before 2005 or after 2010.

Town officials have been unable to identify what “special events” this money was actually used for, or why this expenditure increased so significantly between 2005 and 2006.

St. George has not returned phone calls seeking comment on that issue.

Giampapa declined to comment and referred all questions to St. George. Neither Sudhalter nor Lee returned messages seeking comment.

At the end of 2011, WCTV had $1,688,719 in cash, according to their financial documents. Just ten eight years earlier, in 2003, WCTV had $346,425 in cash at the end of the year. WCTV collected $464,688 in revenue from the two cable providers in 2011.

Other community television stations around Walpole have far less cash on hand. Cable television stations are generally expected to provide money to their communities that relate to their core mission, including installing and maintaining camera equipment in town meeting rooms. WCTV, on the other hand, apparently held on to their money and did not spend it.

St. George declined to comment on the record as to why WCTV had accumulated so much money over the years without spending it on much-needed upgrades to the high school’s television channel and in other town buildings. He said he did not know why WCTV never provided money to the school system to help fund the high school’s television studio, which forced the school district to seek other sources of funding to upgrade their camera equipment.

St. George admitted that WCTV might not have spent money “at the speed the town wants,” but “anything and everything we’re doing has been to advance Walpole Community Television.”

“On the outside it probably doesn’t look that great, probably for good reason,” St. George said. “Believe me, everything is above-board,” he said.

Within the last year, WCTV has been spending money at a frenetic pace, under pressure from town officials to spend down its $1 million-plus cash account ahead of the cable negotiations. Last year, WCTV hired St. George’s wife, Jean, as a new Administrative Secretary – a brand new position that had never existed in their budget before. Although Jean St. George has experience as an Administrative Secretary, the position does not appear to have been publicly advertised for applicants. It is unclear how many people applied for the job, or what the salary is of the new position.

The organization hired Luke Dent, a former Walpole Recreation Department staffer, as a new Production Assistant – another newly-created position. They also spent more than $800,000 on new equipment at various town buildings and on a new Mercedes mobile production van. The new van was purchased without a public bid process.

WCTV also became one of the last community television stations in the area to create a website, spending $1,250 on website design in 2011. WCTV has also begun broadcasting more programs and increasing their coverage of town government meetings.

WCTV obtained an extension from the IRS to file their 2012 information return, and as of press time has yet to file it. That form will show how much money WCTV is still sitting on, and how much in total it has spent in the past year.

Despite town officials’ concerns about WCTV’s cash account, Bob Kelly, Chair of MassAccess, a non-profit association of access cable television stations across the state, said he doesn’t see anything wrong with WCTV’s accumulation of cash.

Kelly noted that many cable television stations save money to eventually upgrade to HD format. “That’s a pretty costly expense that’s coming their way,” Kelly said. “All of these format changes over the years just cost money.”

WCTV is “maybe a step behind” other community television stations in terms of quality and output, he said, but town officials should hold an ascertainment hearing to force WCTV to justify their funding.

“All parties involved with the cable contract should provide testimony,” Kelly said.

With the town strapped for revenue, Kelly said residents should be concerned about Walpole town officials potentially using WCTV’s troubles as an excuse to redirect PEG tax revenue to the town’s coffers.

The kind of controversy that is now occurring with WCTV is “usually politically-motivated,” Kelly said, also noting that many communities are doing away with their Cable Advisory Boards because they are “another layer of bureaucracy that are unnecessary.” Cable providers should negotiate directly with the town, instead of through a Cable Advisory Board, he said.

Walpole officials have already put pressure on WCTV to donate money to the town for a new press box at Turco Field, and more money grabs may be coming.

For his part, St. George vehemently defended the decisions of his Board despite criticism from some town officials.

“I would like to get back to my doing my show again,” St. George, who also hosts an art show, “Impressions,” on WCTV, said. “[This issue has] sort of taken the wind out of my sails,” he said.

“We’re in very sensitive [cable] negotiations right now. I don’t want stuff like this slowing it down,” he said. “We’re looking to the future.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2013 5:53 PM

    This article needs to go in the Walpole Times. How sad that they don’t offer any classes to High School students.

  2. former rebel permalink
    February 27, 2013 4:21 PM

    WCTV stopped broadcasting all High School football games to just a few due to “no money in budget” The truth be known is that only the cameraman was paid $50.00/ game and the 2 announcers did it for free.

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