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Editor’s Note: The WestfordCAT board of directors will meet on Feb. 5 at 6 p.m.* at the Roudenbush Community Center for an interactive informational session with the public before going into executive session. (*start time was changed to 6pm.)
Members of WestfordCAT are awaiting year-end financial numbers to clarify a budget shortfall in fiscal 2019 that prompted the elimination of a professional staff member from the community access television station and subsequently the termination of its executive director.
Outraged by the board’s actions, some WestfordCAT members demanded and got a meeting scheduled for Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Millennium building to ask questions and garner voting power.
The members want to know how much in cash reserves and investments could be used to pay a salary, and they want the authority to make motions and to vote on those motions.
Directors and Members; How they Differ
Unlike the board of directors, WestfordCAT members apply for membership and typically pay a nominal fee for access to the station’s resources. They do not have the authority to make decisions related to the daily operations of the station.
The elected 10-member board of directors holds the authority to schedule regular and special meetings, including at least one annual meeting per fiscal year. The directors are decision-makers and have voting power.
According to the WestfordCAT bylaws, “A special meeting of the Corporation may be called at any time by the President of the Corporation, the Board of Directors, or by receipt of the Clerk of the Corporation of a written request of ten (10) members. Special meetings shall be convened not less than ten (10) days or more than forty-five (45) days after being called.”
WestfordCAT members appeared before the Select Board on Jan. 28 to voice opposition to the lay off of News Director Joyce Pellino Crane scheduled for Feb. 28 and the termination of Executive Director Lauren Horton, whose tenure ended on Jan. 10.
Also presenting were WestfordCAT’s board president Dan Bush, and treasurer Christina Sacco. The Select Board hearing was the outcome of the board’s seven to two vote, with one abstention, on Dec. 3 to lay off Crane. The action was meant to fill a fiscal 2019 budget gap that has been said to be as high as $60K and as low as $12K throughout the year. At the same meeting, the board terminated Horton for disagreeing with the decision to lay off Crane.
Memorandum of Understanding
Bush said the decision to lay off Crane was based on the station’s Memorandum of Understanding with the town. The MOU guarantees such services as the recording of certain board and committee meetings, the scheduling of educational programs, and the opportunity for public use of the station’s facilities.
Select Board member Tom Clay, serves as a liaison to WestfordCAT.
“The decision the board was making was, is it the right choice for sustainability purposes to have a reduction in staff from somebody providing the core MOU services, or was it the right choice to decide that WestfordCAT would move forward without a professional journalist on staff?…” said Clay.
The MOU details the responsibilities and services provided by WestfordCAT. Bush said the board based its decision to lay off Crane on the belief that the MOU does not specifically mention the creation of news content as one of its requirements — a claim later countered by resident Chris Kuntz.
In the meantime, former Executive Director Lauren Horton related how she lost her job.
“As of two weeks ago, I was terminated by Dan Bush for not being in sync with the lay off of our news director. I thought it was done in haste. It didn’t have my input, at that point. It did not have the membership’s input and I thought it was quite a disservice,” said Horton, who served as the organization’s executive director for a decade.
But Bush said Horton resigned and the board accepted her resignation.
Meeting to Take Place on Feb. 12
At the suggestion of Select Board members and concerned residents, Bush scheduled the Feb. 12 meeting for WestfordCAT’s 90 or so members. A flier he distributed said the purpose of the meeting is “to provide members (with) background on board decisions taken in (fiscal) 2018 and (fiscal) 2019, support of community news, and providing an update on financial projections, and the Executive Director Search, as requested.”
WestfordCAT members are asking to have the authority to make motions that they would then be empowered to vote on in accordance with the organization’s bylaws. But the community access TV’s bylaws require members to be approved by the board of directors before they are given the authority to vote.
Know Your ‘Glide Path’ Says One Select Board Member
Supporters of Crane and Horton appeared to win over the Select Board members, who voiced support for maintaining a WestfordCAT news service.
“It looks like CAT burns $30_, $40_, $50,000 worth of cash a year…and I’m certainly not one to advocate burning reserves,” said Select Board member Mark Kost. “That’s the last thing I’d want to do…It looks likely that fees associated with streaming may get added to cable fees that go to CAT now that could replenish the decline in cable accounts…Using some of those reserves for three or four years would still leave a decent balance and allow us to understand better the position of where the state is going to end up in this whole thing.”
Kost suggested Bush hold a regular Board Meeting on Feb. 5 to approve all new members.
“Just be very clear on what your glide path is for people so that they know when they walk into a meeting what to expect, (and) what not to expect,” said Kost, who also chairs the Capital Planning Committee.
Since early December the TV station has been operating amid uncertainty brought on by the unexpected employee dismissals.
“Is there a way and I think you folks honestly need to look at a way to smooth this out over several years…You can’t spend your reserves forever, I absolutely agree with you. But this came out of the blue for everybody,” said Select Board member Andrea Peraner-Sweet. “I’ll admit that I didn’t know that you have been deficit spending for the last two years…I think that took everybody by surprise.”
Peraner-Sweet noted the “services WestfordCAT provides are very important. And people rely on them. It’s really the only source of news we have these days because nothing else gives us any news. There are people in town who…rely on CAT for their news.”
Action Taken by WestfordCAT Board of Directors
On Dec. 3 WestfordCAT board members Bush, Sacco, Warren Adam, Avery Adam, Sean Kelly and Clay voted in favor of laying off the news director. Directors Tracey Tebrow and Nancy Burns voted against the lay-off, Betsy Alvarez abstained, and Shunhe Xiong was absent, according to the December meeting minutes. The members also accepted Bush’s decision to terminate the executive director, reportedly, without taking a vote.
Bush and Sacco said the actions were necessary due to declining revenues since fiscal 2018.
“Significant declining year over year numbers of cable subscribers, which is where WCAT receives the vast majority of its funding, coupled with rising operational costs combine to create an ongoing forecast of operating loss of 6 percent to 10 percent per year. Despite efforts of the staff and board, our local fundraising efforts have not been successful bridging the gap,” stated Bush in a Jan. 8 letter addressed to the Westford community.
But at the Jan. 28 Select Board meeting, supporters of WestfordCAT questioned why Crane’s salary could not be paid out of reserves which reportedly total $413K, including $113K invested at Edward Jones.
“The Board of Directors strongly believed WCAT cannot continue with business as usual and began a substantial review of our operations, services and obligations,” stated Bush in his letter.
Support from Select Board Members
Select Board Member Scott Hazelton expressed support for retaining the news.
“We can’t just arbitrarily drop our news service without any warning to the community,” said Hazelton.
Chair Elizabeth Almeida said she agreed with the need for a professional journalist at WestfordCAT, but would not advocate for the select board to fund the station because “that defeats the purpose of journalism.”
“I know for me, there’s no where to go to get anything about Westford…so I go to the CAT,” said Kost, referring to the lack of hyperlocal news resources.
End of Fiscal Year Results
Sacco noted that the final numbers for fiscal 2019 are not in, yet. “Regarding revenue…projections vary in that it’s an uncertain number. Last year we had between a 4 and 5 percent decline,” she said.
Revenues from cable carriers are down, in part, because homeowners are ending their cable TV subscriptions in favor of streaming services such as Hulu and Amazon. These companies pay no franchise fees for use of public rights of way to sell digital entertainment services.
But Horton countered, saying WestfordCAT’s “revenues were up in fiscal 2019 to $514K as compared to $492K in fiscal 2018.
“While franchise fees dropped by 3.8 percent last year, total revenues were up, with more underwriters coming on board to support local media,” stated Horton.
As the meeting drew to a close, Chris Kuntz stood up to address a core issue. “I would like to ask our Board of Selectmen in the town of Westford to make sure that the MOU gets modified somewhat to stipulate specifically that news is part of the function that we expect from our cable provider in Westford.”