Monday, February 4, 2008

Matters unresolved: Rules Committee report raises more questions than it answers

Editor’s Note: The following piece is written by Rick Watrous, founding executive director (1999-2002) of Concord Community TV. In late 2005 he brought a number of alleged city charter and council rules violations by city councilors involved with CCTV to the attention of the Concord city council. Two years later, in December 2007, the council Rules Committee submitted its report. Watrous has documentation supporting his claims in the following article.

The 2008 Concord City Council begins its term facing the continuing controversy of conflicts of interests, apparent misuse of public money, and possible wrongdoing concerning city councilor involvement with the private corporation Concord Community TV (CCTV, now called ConcordTV). In December, the City Council Rules Committee, after a two year investigation rife with controversy and footdragging, issued a report that raises more questions than it answers.

Of the 11 counts before it concerning city charter and council rule violations by city councilors who were either employed by CCTV or on the CCTV board, the Rules Committee found no violations in seven of the issues, three issues not under its jurisdiction, and left one conflict of interest charge on the table.

According to the report from Councilor Katherine Rogers, chairwoman of the Rules Committee and longtime CCTV supporter (where, according to Rogers, she assists her dog Vito Corleone in hosting a show), there is no conflict of interest or violation of city rules when city councilors, who are CCTV board members, speak and vote on CCTV’s funding and no-bid city contract and funding matters before the council.

The Rules Committee also found that there was no conflict of interest when Mayor Michael Donovan appointed city councilor and CCTV employee Doris Ballard to be chairwoman of the council’s Communications Committee which dealt with city/CCTV matters.

Thanks to action by Mayor Jim Bouley (then a member of the Rules Committee), one conflict of interest charge against Ballard remains on the table:

“A full-time position of Outreach/Development Director was created for Councilor Doris Ballard at CCTV in 2003 while two of her City Council colleagues were on the CCTV board. The fact that CCTV receives almost all of its money from a city contract – controlled by the City Council – raises question of political patronage.”

Interestingly enough, despite employing Ballard as a full-time outreach director, on its last available tax return form CCTV reports only raising $280 in direct public support. Presumably, the new council will deal with this outstanding issue, as well as the numerous issues raised by the report.

As the founding director of CCTV, its misuse of public funds and ongoing loss of money through its outreach efforts of former city councilor Ballard greatly troubles me. The Rules Committee was asked to determine if Ballard used her position as an elected official to attain a full-time position. At the Aug. 22, 2006 Rules Committee meeting, I testified that I had hired Ballard as a temporary part-time employee. Ballard, among the parade of CCTV representatives who spoke following my testimony, testified that she had been hired as a permanent employee. At the end of the meeting, Rogers requested that anyone with pertinent documents please submit the items to the Rules Committee. Following Rogers’ request, I submitted a copy of Ballard’s temporary CCTV employment contract, a public document that I had legally attained at the city manager’s office.

I suddenly became the target of an unmerited police investigation. Without even asking me how I had attained the document, Rogers launched a police investigation which led to my interrogation at the Concord police station. (Mayor Bouley recently told me that he believed Rogers acted inappropriately and may have violated section 27 of the City Charter.) I found myself in the Concord PD interrogation room answering questions about the document’s identity and how and where I had attained it.

Fortunately for me, Police Investigator Chris DeAngelis verified my story by quickly finding a copy of Ballard’s contract, complete with cover letter by then-CCTV executive director Steve Budkiewicz, on file in the city manager’s office.

Rogers defended her actions in a written response to me, writing that CCTV staff and City Manager Tom Aspell had denied knowledge of the contract’s existence. This is baffling because Ballard had signed the contract, Budkiewicz had written about it in his letter to the city manager and mailed the contract to city hall, where the city manager placed it on file in his office.

The very existence of the document proved that Ballard and others provided false information to the Rules Committee and that I had spoken the truth.

I asked to provide additional testimony at the next Rules Committee meeting but Rogers and the committee refused to let me speak again. Rogers would go on to repeatedly tell the city council that I had testified to her Rules Committee “several” times in the long course of investigation, even though I was only able to testify once, on Aug. 22, 2006.

Rogers own long-term relationship with CCTV, as CCTV producer, host, and self-proclaimed “creator” of CCTV, raises serious concerns as to whether she should have ever led this investigation. According to a 2003 CCTV newsletter, the CCTV staff created a still-running show for Rogers and her dog, Vito Corleone. Rogers acknowledged the conflict of interest in September 2006 yet she continued to preside over the meetings and direct the investigation.

At the Sept. 21, 2006 meeting of the Rules Committee, Rogers appointed a subcommittee, chaired by Councilor Dan St. Hilaire, to examine CCTV records for improper use if the publicly funded facility between 2003 and 2005. Records regarding nonpublic use on weekends and by individuals such as Salisbury resident Jamie Brace (for whom, according to court documents, paid CCTV staff spent many hours producing a court mandated video to satisfy his sentence for deadly vehicular assault only to have the judge reject the video) were to be examined. According to the city clerk and Merrimack Superior Court Judge Conboy, this subcommittee never met.

Not until May 16, 2007 was it revealed that on Feb. 28 Councilors St. Hilaire and Rowe had gone to CCTV to examine records provided by Doris Ballard – the same person who had already provided false testimony to the Rules Committee. According to a memo from the Rules subcommittee, no evidence of nonpublic weekend use was found. This was contrary to already existing CCTV documents, including information posted on CCTV’s own Web site, plus my own experience with CCTV.

When I was the CCTV executive director I made a point of living up to the equal access standard of public access TV. To meet public demand, the studio was made available to the public on Saturdays, with either myself or my production coordinator supervising. After my departure in 2002, this policy ended and the studio was closed to the public on weekends while CCTV board members and their associates were able to privately use the publicly funded studio.

In 2005, I had to file a grievance with CCTV and bring in Attorney William Chapman to force CCTV to end this private club privilege and reopen the studio to the Concord public on weekends. This resulted in one of the charges before the Rules Committee: “From 2003 to 2005, CCTV – in violation of its mission statement, written policies and the city contract – did not permit public use of its public access studio on weekends but allowed unsupervised private use of the studio by board members and their friends.”

Now the Rules subcommittee was reporting that no evidence of this nonpublic weekend use existed even though I had documented evidence and CCTV was contractually obliged to maintain records relating to this use.

I filed a Right-to-Know request for the public to be able to see the CCTV records examined by the Rules subcommittee. Rogers, along with City Solicitor Paul Cavanaugh, refused my request. The city solicitor went to court arguing that the Concord public – despite completely funding CCTV year after year – has no right to view CCTV’s records and that the Rules subcommittee never met. The judge agreed. The documents that the Rules subcommittee examined and used as evidence were never made public.

After submitting her December report to the council, Rogers added a Dec. 10 memo where she claimed that she had “no special privileges” at CCTV but she also admits: “I have taped shows on Saturdays since the inception of my show.” Rogers did not explain why she withheld this pertinent evidence until now, as this Saturday studio use privilege – not available to the general public for a number of years – was one of the charges brought before the Rules Committee.

Her declaration lends additional proof that crucial CCTV records indicating this weekend use were tampered with in an effort to hide such abuse. It also raises the question of whether Rogers’ conduct of the investigation was in good faith or a drawn out whitewash intended to hide possible wrongdoing where she was one of the beneficiaries.

In general, the rulings seem to gut the city’s existing conflict of interest rules. According to the Rules Committee, it is now permissible for an employee of a private corporation to be the chair of a city committee and speak on matters impacting his or her corporation. Corporate board directors who serve on the city council can speak and vote on contract and other issues impacting their own corporation.

In reaching these conclusions the Rules Committee relied on an alleged “Attorney General’s opinion”. Despite repeated requests to view this opinion, including the Right-to-Know lawsuit, this opinion was never produced. After submitting her report to the council, Rogers admitted, “There is no written opinion,” and that Councilor St. Hilaire was “the only member of the Rules Committee to hear it and the member that informed the Rules Committee of its content.”

What, if anything, the Attorney General said on the subject remains unclear, as does the rationale of the Rules Committee in using this hearsay evidence in reaching it decision.

After a two year investigation led by a councilor heavily involved with CCTV, we have the Rules Committee basing their findings on CCTV records that the public can’t see, an alleged Attorney General opinion that the public can’t view, and the doings of a Rules subcommittee who conducted their business without ever having a public meeting. During her unsuccessful run for mayor (where, it should be noted that all city councilors, except former CCTV treasurer William Stetson, came out against her), Rogers spoke of the importance of open government, proclaiming that “The only things that do well in the dark are cockroaches.”

It’s time to shine a bright, public light on the highly questionable activity of Rogers, the Rules Committee, the many councilors involved with CCTV, and how CCTV annually spends hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. For the good of the citizens of Concord, it is time for our city council to end such blatant conflicts of interest and for our city councilors to obey their own rules.

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