Sunday, December 9, 2007

Is Rogers trying to bury the cable media access center investigation on the way out the door?

On Monday night, the Concord City Council could potentially bury complaints, once again, about the non-profit organization that runs the community's cable media access center [CCTV, now known as ConcordTV], through a simple voice vote.
Outgoing City Councilor Katherine Rogers, who is also the chairwoman of the Rules Committee, has submitted a four page report about hearings the committee has undertaken to address conflict of interest charges, charter violations, and other issues forwarded by Rick Watrous, the access center's former executive director. The report is listed as a "Consent Report" item, meaning that the council can either accept or reject the item, with no public input.
Speculation is high that the report will be approved by the Council and the matter will not be discussed.
But bubbling under the surface of this Consent Report - issued before Rogers steps down from the Council after an unsuccessful bid for Mayor - are more charges which have surfaced in the case, including other charter violations, at least one accusation of concealing or tampering with records, and accusations that witnesses before the committee provided false information, which helped guide the committee to reject 11 of the 12 counts forwarded by Watrous.
A charter violation charge could also be leveled against Rogers for her role in having the police investigate Watrous after he submitted a document to the Rules Committee which reportedly disproved testimony forwarded by ConcordTV's Outreach and Development Director Doris Ballard, a former at-large Concord City Councilor.

'Two years of foot-dragging'
On Saturday, in an effort to get the Council to shelve the report and gain a fair and impartial hearing of the issues, Watrous sent out email to councilors urging them to reject the report because of its problems and other outstanding issues.
In the email, Watrous stated that Rogers "should have never been allowed to direct this investigation," due to the fact that she is a producer and host on ConcordTV and had allegedly been granted special access to the station's studios which the public has not received, one of Watrous' charges.
"[She is even] the self-proclaimed 'creator' of CCTV (as heard during her recent mayoral campaign)," he wrote.
Watrous stated that Rogers presided over the meetings in violation of city rules even after acknowledging these conflicts of interest. He also accused her of "deliberately misdirect[ing] the investigation to cover-up wrongdoing by CCTV and city officials." Watrous noted that the Council and public had also been misinformed about the matter.
"On May 16, to avoid a CCTV investigation by the administration, [Rogers] told the council that the rules subcommittee had met. According to the city clerk and the Merrimack [County] Superior Court, the rules subcommittee had not met. Since being formed in Sept. 2006 the rules subcommittee has never met."
Watrous also alleged that Rogers falsely stated to the Council that he was "allowed to speak to the rules committee on several occasions" when in fact he was only allowed to speak once. A written request to respond to issues raised by ConcordTV staff and board members was denied by the committee.
Watrous also raised the issue of the police investigation: "Rogers abused her authority by causing me to be the subject of an unmerited Concord police investigation because - upon her request - I submitted a public document to the rules committee."
"This document proved that city councilor/CCTV employee Doris Ballard had provided false testimony to the rules committee about her CCTV employment, yet in February Ballard was the person the rules subcommittee relied on for evidence as to the nonpublic weekend use," he wrote.
According to ConcordTV and rules subcommittee, there is no evidence of non-public weekend use but documented evidence exists, including use by Rogers, he wrote. Either CCTV staff or the rules subcommittee concealed evidence, Watrous wrote.
Watrous also stated that the Rules Committee based some of their rulings on a purported "Attorney General's opinion" that there was no merit to the allegations. Despite several requests, Rogers has failed to produce this purported AG opinion, he wrote.
Lastly, the Rules Committee has yet to vote on the count that there was a conflict of interest when the position of Outreach/Development Director was created for Ballard in 2003 while she was an at-large Councilor and two of her council colleagues were on the CCTV board.
The count was held over for action "until further notice," Rogers' report states.
Watrous also requested that other councilors with connections to ConcordTV - specifically Ward 6 Councilor Allen Bennett, who is a board member for the channels, and Ward 2 Councilor William Stetson, who was the treasurer of the board during the time that the alleged misconduct took place - recuse themselves from speaking or voting on the matter.

The report's conclusions
In Rogers' report, she outlines decisions made by the Rules Committee based on the evidence which was allowed to be presented.
Of the 12 points in the report, one still remains open, whether or not it was a conflict of interest for Ballard to have a position created for her at CCTV while she was a sitting councilor and while two other councilors sat on the board and probably approved of the hire.
Three others were ruled as not under the jurisdiction of the Rules Committee. Those issues were: Whether or not having council members serve on the CCTV board assured that CCTV has operated in an efficient and responsible manner; Whether or not taxpayers were getting their money's from CCTV when considering the fact that about half as many programs were produced in FY2004 and FY2005 [More than $400,000 from the city] than in FY2001 [Funding: $60,000]; Whether a Right-to-Know request made for information regarding the city's current no-bid contracts and a request for a list of corporations which the city does business with that have city councilors appointed to their boards.
The latter request was rejected by city administration who reportedly stated, "No such list exist and the city has no obligation under the provisions of 91A to gather such information for you," according to the report.
But one has to wonder, Why doesn't the city have a list and why shouldn't someone be able to ask for that information? As well, why shouldn't city administration know such information and be able to provide it to a taxpayer or voter, when requested? And shouldn't city officials know this information in order to keep any conflicts from occurring?
While Watrous doesn't admit as such, the first two questions were probably rhetorical since most people know that the cable media access center is not being run efficiently and having councilors serving on the board of ConcordTV has not guaranteed efficiency. In fact, one could easily surmise that the exact opposite has occurred.
Decisions were reached on another eight points.
The Rules Committee decided that there was no conflict of interest or violation of city charter when two city councilors, who were also board members of CCTV, voted to table a petition submitted by 30 residents requesting that some other entity other than CCTV be allowed to operate the city's media access center. Those city councilors, Keith Allberg, who no longer serves, and Bennett, were allowed to speak and vote to table the petition thus quashing a petition that raised a contract issue about their own corporation.
According to the report, "[t]he Committee unanimously voted that based on the Attorney General's opinion as well as the fact that neither Councilor Allberg or Councilor Bennett had any financial gain."
However, despite numerous requests for a copy of "the Attorney General's opinion," no one from the Rules Committee or the city can produce such a document. In a May 18, 2007 email, City Clerk Janice Bonefant confirmed that no such document existed in the Rules Committee file.
Later, During the May 29 Rules Committee meeting, St. Hilaire stated that the AG's opinion came from a conversation he had with someone in that office several months before. St. Hilaire never revealed who that person was and nothing in writing was produced for anyone else. Rogers later told the meeting, Mr. Watrous prefers it in writing, we'll get it in writing. However, the document has still not been produced.
So, where is the Attorney General's supposed opinion that the committee based its ruling on?
Interestingly, this petition remains tabled almost three years later.
The Rules Committee decided that there was no conflict of interest or violation of city charter when two city councilors, who were also board members of CCTV, sat in on a non-public session on Feb. 14, 2005, to discuss contract negotiations with CCTV. A Right-to-Know request for the minutes of that meeting was rejected by the city administration. Later, it was released but there was not much in it.
Essentially, the committee is saying that it is OK for councilors who sit on boards of organizations doing business with the city to not recuse themselves for contract negotiations with said organizations. They are also saying that it is OK for this information to be kept from the public even after the contracts have been approved even though the law states otherwise [Minutes from nonpublic sessions can only be kept secret if two-thirds of the members vote that disclosure of the information would a) have an adverse affect on the reputation of a person; b) would render the proposed action ineffective; c) pertains to preparation of emergency functions. Obviously, a contract with a cable media access center fits none of the above].
The next point concerned private use of the cable media access center on weekends by board members and their friends between 2003 and 2005. The private use of the facility, Watrous suggested, was a violation of Chapter 54 of the City Charter and went against the mission statement, written policies, and the contract CCTV has with the city.
According to the report, Councilor Dan St. Hilaire, who is also a county attorney, said he found "no abnormalities or misuse of the property."
And yet, there are documents printed from CCTV's on Web site during this period showing weekend use by board members and others. There is also a letter from then-Executive Director Steve Budkiewicz admitting that the studio was used during this time period and that because of Watrous' efforts to expose the problem, the private use of the facility would end.
Where did this documentation go and why was it not shown to the subcommittee? Can CCTV not keep track of its records? Who is minding the store and why doesn't the council seem to care? As stated before, Watrous' efforts to submit this proof debunking what Ballard showed St. Hilaire was rejected by the committee. Why would they reject proof that they received false information or that records may have been tampered with?
Two other counts concerned violations of Council Rule 6A and whether or not Ballard, as a former councilor, was in violation of the rule.
The first dealt with the following: In January 2004, Mayor Mike Donovan appointed then-Councilor Ballard to be chairwoman of the city's Communications Committee. But since Ballard was an employee of an entity which received 98 percent of its money from the city, and the Communications Committee sometimes dealt with city/CCTV matters, this would seem a violation of the rule. The rule states, "No Councilor shall introduce, speak on or vote on any motion, ordinance, resolution or issue in which he/she has an interest, direct or indirect, apart from his/her own compensation as Councilor." Involvement in this committee which dealt with CCTV issues should be seen as a violation of this rule. However, the committee rejected this count.
Another dealt with Ballard's post-Council tenure: After resigning from the council, Ballard attended Information Technology Advisory Committee [ITAC] meetings in August and September 2005 when CCTV's contract was discussed. Another provision of Rule 6A states: "Within one year after leaving office, no former Councilor shall appear before the City Council or any board or commission of the city on a matter for which he/she is compensated." Since Ballard was an employee of CCTV and the contract was being discussed, her appearance at contract meetings would violate this rule. However, the committee rejected this count.
Improper direction of the city staff was raised as an issue because former City Manager Duncan Ballantyne participated in an on-air fundraiser for CCTV in April 2005 at the same time that three councilors, his bosses, were either employed or on the board of CCTV. The committee report rejected this count stating, "city staff may appear on fundraising events."
After raising all of these points, Watrous stated that it points to a worrisome situation: "All of this points to the inherent questions raised when there is a no-bid contract with a corporation that is directed by/or employs city councilors. Are there other instances of questionable relationships between the Council and corporations with which the City does business?"
The committee stated there was no questionable relationship and St. Hilaire suggested that Watrous should pursue the matter in court if he felt there was a problem.
Lastly, Watrous raised the issue of conflict of interest in actions made by board members, specifically Bennett's actions during both council and ITAC meetings to consider offers from other entities to bid to run the cable media access center and to continue to keep CCTV records from the public and press. Bennett, as a CCTV board member and councilor, voting and initiating these things, would be in conflict. But the committee rejected this count as well.

Is the report a 'white-wash'?
For just an innocent bystander, this all might seem like a big mess ... and this does not even touch the issue of the fraudulent police investigation Rogers perpetrated against Watrous for having documents he legally obtained.
Watrous rightly concludes that the report is probably a "white-wash." But the larger point is this: Imagine for a moment if it were you involved in such a case. What would you want the councilors to do? Would you want them to give you a fair hearing or allow you to be attacked and maligned for years because you present evidence which shows that people are acting wrongly? And how does this match up with the supposed open government reputation Rogers has tried to suggest she has? It is open government - unless her friends or her silly dog show is involved - and then it is closed.
Clearly, the Rules Committee has been misguided. Only a fool could not see that. And Rogers should never have been allowed to investigate this matter. She and the committee's actions to not allow Watrous - or anyone else - to respond to the testimony with counter evidence proving that the violations had occurred and that the committee may have been lied to, are unconscionable and irresponsible. These decisions, which may have been swayed by false information forwarded by the same people the Rules Committee were supposed to investigate, need to be reevaluated, with the new information included.
The findings in this report as well as the lack of action on other charges leveled by Watrous and other residents, could only make someone wonder if sitting councilors, previous councilors, and the city's administration are above the law or at the very least, exempt from oversight.
What is also most interesting about this case is the fact that few want to acknowledge that crimes may have occurred and serious problems continue to exist with how ConcordTV is being run, including now, an accusation that records may have been concealed or tampered with along with the false information charge. How can any organization which can't keep its records straight be allowed to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds for a no-bid contract?
Clearly, most public officials would like this to all go away. But one has to wonder, When does this community and its council decide to take the time to fix the problems, so everyone can move on?


Anonymous said...

I missed the part of your story where you checked facts with anyone other then yourself and Rick Watrous?

Tony said...

Anon 2:13: Thanks for reading and for your response. If you would, please respond to your comments that I missed the facts. What "facts" do you speak of? Let's take a look:

1) I'm quoting from Rogers' report which was in the council docket.

2) I was either at all the hearings involving this case or watched them later on videotape when I could not attend. So, I witnessed the Rules Committee process.

3) I've seen the evidence Rick speaks of myself, with my own eyes, including printouts from ConcordTV's Web site and a letter from the former executive director admitting weekend use!

So, please, enlighten me to the "facts" I've missed and while you are at it, post your real name too.

In closing, if you have access to records that can disprove anything Rick has said or I have written, and would like to release them to the public and press, since ConcordTV board members have, "Nothing to hide," please do! We would all love to see them.