More Summer Fireworks at ACTV

A half-year after a city-led investigation began into missing money at ACTV, no answers are forthcoming. In the manner of many of the colorful programs and personalities that populate the public access airwaves, conspiracy theories abound – and not solely over the missing funds.

More Summer Fireworks at ACTV
Illustration By Doug Potter

If you want to know what's going on with Austin Community Television, tune into cable channels 10, 11, or 16 – not that you'll hear the answers, but nobody else is talking.

A half-year after a city-led investigation began into missing operating funds at ACTV, no answers are forthcoming. "It's still ongoing," said city auditor Steve Morgan. "When we're working with the D.A.'s office, by law, we can't reveal any details." Indeed, prosecutor Patty Robertson of the Travis Co. District Attorney's office also had no comment. Morgan said it was "not unusual" for such a financial investigation to go on this long, however, as both his office, the D.A., and the APD are involved, combing through financial statements, bank records, and ACTV's own books.

Yet in the manner of many of the, ahem, colorful programs and personalities that populate the public access airwaves, conspiracy theories abound – and not solely over the missing money. With new ACTV management offers already submitted to the city, a vocal contingent of producers are looking to see the current management ousted, and are questioning its legal right to exist. (For more background, see "Hits, Errors, and Home Runs at ACTV," Jan. 14.) The newly rejuvenated producers advisory committee, led by chair Stefan Wray, is demanding answers to the investigation, which they believe is more serious than has been acknowledged. Wray says there's no longer any question that funds were stolen from ACTV, but "the issue is how much. … If it was only $30,000 it wouldn't be taking this long. I think it's probably in the hundreds of thousands."

The current dispute began in earnest last December, when Executive Director John Villarreal resigned as the investigation began, but battles between management and producers are nothing new. The producers' distrust was galvanized last summer, when Austin Community Access Center, the nonprofit currently managing ACTV, proposed a rebranding of ACTV's stations into separate, content-classified channels (one for spirituality, another for arts, and most controversially, only one for "free speech").

A cursory glance at the ACTV Producers Coalition message board reveals a flaming, troll-baiting wonderland of unsubstantiated rumor and broken Caps Lock buttons. It also features a meticulously detailed argument from Wray claiming the current ACAC board is itself invalid. "I looked at that state law, and … it says there is a minimum requirement of three [board members for a nonprofit to be valid in Texas]," Wray said. "Then I read the sentence right after that, which essentially says that if the bylaws state a different minimum, then that's what it has to be. And the bylaws say five. What that means then, is when they went down below five, in the middle of October, at that point they didn't have the minimum number of required board members."

ACTV board Chair Ron Frank derides Wray's argument as "grasping at straws," but over the weekend Wray wrote to Travis Co. Attorney David Escamilla to ask his office to "stop the remaining directors from conducting business as if they were a duly constituted board of directors."

Wray has been unable to attract much official attention to his allegations. City Manager Toby Futrell says that "in some ways it's kind of moot; in the next two months, the question is going to be answered, and [the board] is either reconfigured or reinvigorated." Rondella Hawkins of the city's Department of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs agrees. "When we get through this process, and make the contract award, I'm hoping that it will be a new start, a fresh start, and we can get whatever the issues are on the table, ironed out."

That is, the war between Wray's producers and the board is taking place as the city considers three separate proposals to manage ACTV. A request for proposals was issued months ago, and as of the June 17 closing date, the city's purchasing department confirmed three offers. One of those is presumably ACAC; Hawkins says she's not permitted to name the other two groups. If either group succeeds, they, like ACAC, would incorporate themselves into a nonprofit to manage the station.

The winning party will be determined by a city evaluation team, expected to come up with a recommendation in the next few weeks. Then, says Hawkins, "we'll run it through the Austin Telecommunications Commission," which next meets Aug. 10. Then "it will go before the Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure, on August 24. I anticipate it will go to [City] Council either the day after, on the 25th, or it will be moved up to early September."

With public testimony welcomed at all three levels, you can expect the controversy to continue. "Quite frankly, it's been quite contentious here," said Hawkins. "It's not good for public access in general. … I don't want people just to hear all the negatives. If they hear that there's all this disruption and discontent, they start questioning: What is the value here?"

Toby Futrell had, if not an answer, perhaps a different perspective on it all: "Part of the beauty of ACTV is the fierce independence – both for the producers, and, hell, for that matter, the board members. Controversy is certainly not new, and healthy debates, and disputes over how it should be handled and managed is certainly not new."

Oops! The following correction ran in our July 22, 2005 issue: The article "More Summer Fireworks at ACTV" incorrectly called producer Stefan Wray the chair of ACTV's Producers Advisory Guild. Mr. Wray is the former chair; Sue Cole is the current PAC chair.

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Austin Community Television, Steve Morgan, Patty Robertson, Rondella Hawkins, John Villareal, Stefan Wray, ACTV, Austin Community Access Center, Ron Frank, David Escamilla, Toby Futrell

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