Friday, February 17, 2017

Not crime? Double standard? The arts, the elite?

No crime in meltdown of Santa Rosa public media center

A police investigation into accusations that the former executive director of Santa Rosa’s community media center misspent public funds has concluded no crimes were committed. 
The board of CMedia fired its executive director, Daedalus Howell, last year after a city audit found that more than $330,000 earmarked for equipment upgrades had instead been spent on salaries at the struggling non-profit. 
The audit also found Howell spent more than $10,000 with an organization credit card over three years at local coffee shops, bars and restaurants, purchases which auditors felt were “not in line with CMedia’s tax-exempt purpose.” Howell has said they were aimed at generating new business. 
After firing Howell, a Petaluma novelist and conceptual artist, and his assistant director, the CMedia board filed a crime report with the Santa Rosa Police Department alleging theft of public funds or possible embezzlement. 
But after reviewing documents and interviewing Howell, city officials, and board members of the non-profit, police concluded that while funds may not have been spent as required by the group’s contract with the city, there was no theft. 
“After looking at all the evidence and doing all the interviews, there was no evidence or statements that led us to believe a crime of any kind took place,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Marcus Sprague said. 
There are a number of elements that need to be proven to determine theft of public funds, and those elements, such as falsifying information or lying, were not uncovered in the investigation, Sprague said. 
“(Howell) did not falsify any information to the board and he did not fail to provide information to the board when asked,” Sprague said. 
He declined to say whether he felt the board failed to execute proper oversight of the organization. 
Howell has previously said he did the best he could to transition the CMedia from an organization wholly dependent on city revenue to one with more private sector support, but those efforts failed. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
He placed much of the blame for the non-profit’s demise on the city’s restricting funding and what he said was the infighting and dysfunction of the volunteer board of directors. Howell once likened board meetings to “a Monty Python sketch.” 
But board members said they were kept in the dark about some of Howell’s actions, including moving money from a restricted capital account and taking out a $23,000 cash advance on a CMedia credit card to make payroll, including his own $85,000 salary. 
Board President Jim Helmer said he found the investigation’s conclusion disappointing, but he acknowledged that both Howell and the board share responsibility for the debacle. 
“I think we probably needed to be a lot clearer financially about what was going on with the organization,” Helmer said. “I guess the best way to put it is we didn’t hold his feet to fire.”
Following the audit findings and needing to ensure services like recording and broadcasting of public meetings continued, the City Council in December canceled CMedia’s three-year contract. 
The group is now in the process of dissolving. City Attorney Teresa Stricker, who once described the misuse of funds as “unlawful,” declined to say if the city plans to pursue any civil remedies against the organization, which Helmer said still has about $20,000 in capital funds. 

State franchise agreements with video companies require them to set aside channels for public, educational, or governmental use, and customers pay fees on their monthly bills to support those uses. 
The city recently struck a deal with the Sonoma County Library system to spend up to $150,000 annually for the next five years to create new video access areas for the public in four Santa Rosa library branches. 
The areas will be designed to give easy public access to video production and editing technology as well as labs suitable for hands-on classes, according to the city’s chief information officer Eric McHenry. 
The city is also exploring creating studio production space in the Bennett Valley Senior Center. 
The Mendocino Avenue building that since 1997 has housed CMedia, or as it was previously known Community Media Center of the North Bay, was leased from the Santa Rosa school district. Discussions are underway about turning the space back over to the district, McHenry said. 

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