These are turbulent times for local public access television. While many positive developments at SLO County Public Access (SLOCOPA) are happening, lately these accomplishments have been overshadowed by controversy. It has been astounding to watch as our volunteer organization is vilified in the press, accused of everything from incompetence to racial discrimination. The real story has nothing to do with discrimination. In reality, this all began as a fight over coveted public television airtime.
Over the past year, a series of new shows began to appear on Channel 2, many of which were either hosted or co-hosted by longtime producers Ron and Leslie Bearce, and filmed or edited by their children. Neither Ron nor Leslie were listed as the producer on the paperwork, but it was clearly their footage. Technically, the Bearce family had seven shows between them, but at one time, they were estimated as appearing in over 20 programs.
Many members were concerned that a few people were taking up more than their fair share of the public airwaves monopolizing time that should be given to different individuals with their own, unique vision. Each producer was already limited to a maximum of two shows, but this rule was being circumvented.
The former board passed new rules in January to address these apparent abuses. Two of the most controversial changes were a rule prohibiting shows from airing at the same time each day and a rule limiting an organization or affiliated group, including a family, to two shows in total. In a series of e-mails, Leslie and Ron Bearce called this rule anti-marriage, anti-family, and illegal. Leslie went on to compare the new rules to a "loaded gun" pointed at the head of her family.
The Bearces formed a coalition with certain other producers, many of whom had multiple evening time-slots and were miffed at the changes to the schedule. This faction staged a protest at our March election meeting, resulting in the widely reported fireworks. Ron Bearce was suspended for disruptive behavior. I was one of four new board directors elected, defeating the Bearce-sponsored candidates, including Robert Bearce, Anthony Bolin, and Patrick Germany.
Now, this disgruntled group has decided to wage war on SLOCOPA publicly, engaging in a smear campaign that would chill Machiavelli's blood. The Bearces' private footage of the March meeting was feverishly distributed to the press and city officials certain board members did behave in an unfortunate manner, but the actions that provoked it had been conveniently edited. Ron Bearce claims the limits on his activities are anti-diversity. This is ironic, since he is on record as wanting to eliminate shows that don't meet certain content criteria. For instance, Bearce claims that religious and political shows are low-priority under our policies. This is nowhere in our Operating Policies. In fact, these rules do not differentiate between shows according to their content at all. Furthermore, our agreement with the city requires us to assign programming on a first-come, first-served basis, so removing a show from the schedule because of its content, religious or otherwise, would violate the terms of our agreement as well as the First Amendment.
Bearce asserts that he is not trying to ban shows, but "want(s) them to invite guests with opposing views and have more diversity" ("SLO City Council freezes public access fund," July 12, New Times). Diversity according to whom? And how exactly would this be enforced? In his many e-mail monologues, Bearce clearly indicates that producers who don't meet this highly subjective standard should leave the channel.
The most outrageous charge against SLOCOPA is racism. This claim is a complete fabrication. For example: Patrick Germany, recent board candidate and Bearce supporter, alleges that he was the victim of a conspiracy to remove minority producers from the channel. Germany has two shows currently airing on Channel 2, so he benefits from an organization that he routinely attacks. He claims that one of his shows was taken off the air. Actually, Germany was never on record as producer for the show in question, and this has been explained to him repeatedly.
At the July 3 City Council meeting, SLOCOPA's resident malcontents attended in force, making the same overheated accusations. Several people who spoke attacking us, or in favor of the Bearces, were not even SLO Public Access members.
Prior to the City Council meeting, our board of directors was aware of only one substantive complaint from the city. In May, Michael Passarelli and I met with City Clerk Audrey Hooper and City Attorney Jonathan Lowell to discuss a complaint about one of our policies. This complaint had nothing to do with discrimination, but pertained to a possible First Amendment conflict. When we realized there were legitimate concerns regarding that policy, we submitted a written commitment to change this specific language. It seemed that if the board did this, our equipment purchase requests would be forthcoming.
At the July 3 meeting, several council members suddenly decided that our bylaws were too "convoluted" and confusing. No council member identified a single clause in our rules that was discriminatory or violated any part of our agreement. No attempt was made to explain what specific changes they wanted. But the council voted to withhold our funding, as "leverage," in the words of Councilman Carter, to pressure us to comply with some indeterminate standard. One could almost wish the City Council would just write our bylaws themselves, instead of subjecting us to these vague, arbitrary demands.
For now, SLO Public Access may have been deprived of some important funding. But if we are given a full and fair hearing by the city, we are confident the facts will show that the charges against us are false and unfair. Public access television is entering a new era. We are reaching out to the community through an unprecedented promotional campaign, and new producers are joining every day. With the help of everyone reading this, we can still build a Channel 2 that will make SLO County proud.
Monique Matta is a SLOCOPA producer and board member. This commentary reflects her personal opinions and not necessarily those of the board. Send comments to New Times editor Ryan Miller at [email protected].