The executive director of Santa Rosa’s publicly funded community media center has been fired and the remaining employees laid off this week as the cash-strapped nonprofit struggles for revenue and relevancy.
Daedelus Howell, a writer and filmmaker who has headed CMedia since 2013, resigned last week, was fired three days later, and is now threatening legal action against a board he says is comically dysfunctional.
The departures have forced the public agencies that rely on CMedia to broadcast their meetings — such as the Santa Rosa City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors — to scramble to ensure those services continue.
Howell, 44, said that last Tuesday, following a sharp drop in revenue from the city, he laid off his assistant director, Desiree Poindexter, and resigned himself. On Friday, they both received termination letters on grounds that he described as “a bunch of notions that are completely untrue.”
He declined to share the letter but acknowledged that one of the issues cited was that he had taken out a $20,000 cash advance on the CMedia credit card.
He said the organization had been struggling financially for some time as it tried in vain to diversify its revenue streams and become less reliant on city funds. He said he authorized the cash advance to make payroll, including his own $85,000 annual salary, after the city delayed a promised payment.
CMedia has a three-year contract to broadcast City Council meetings, operate the media center on the grounds of Santa Rosa High School and produce public service announcement videos for the city.
The contract calls for the center to receive $510,000 in the first year, $425,000 in the second and $350,000 this year. The funds come from franchise fees paid by television providers Comcast and AT&T.
The payments were reduced every year to encourage the organization to become self-sufficient, but those efforts faltered.
“We managed as best we could as long as we could,” Howell said.
The cuts were “devastating,” and he and his assistant had recently taken 10 percent pay reductions, he said. But efforts to raise funds also fell short, a fact Howell blamed largely on a board he called “highly dysfunctional.” He likened their meetings to “a Monty Python sketch.”
“I cannot express to you the madness of this board,” Howell said.
Board chairman Jim Helmer said the board was forced to lay off the handful of remaining staff Monday. He declined to discuss Howell’s departure, noting the recent letter the board had received from Howell’s attorney.
An outside firm recently completed an audit of the nonprofit’s books. Helmer provided a copy to the City of Santa Rosa but declined to share it with The Press Democrat, saying it was a draft that had not been approved by the board.
He said the organization was trying to focus on fulfilling the contracts to broadcast public meetings. He acknowledged it was a trying time.
“Whenever you’re putting people’s lives in jeopardy because of pay, it’s horrible,” Helmer said.
Eric McHenry, the city’s chief technology officer, said the city hired some CMedia staff on a “temporary, part-time emergency basis” to make sure the City Council meetings continue to be televised. CMedia’s contract for that work runs through March.
“It’s a critical city service that we had to have a backup plan for,” McHenry said.
The city will be performing its own audit of CMedia’s finances soon, he said.
County officials said they expected to be able to find ways to continue televising county board meetings.
According to recordings of recent CMedia board meetings, Howell reported that he and McHenry had been in “tense” discussions about the city taking over the broadcasting of City Council meetings and possibly having the computers at CMedia, which the city owns, stationed at county libraries, which Howell and others viewed as undermining the center’s mission.
The center remained open Friday afternoon as John Moran taped an episode of “707,” a Charlie Rose-type talk show, with John Crowley, owner of Aqus Café in Petaluma. Moran referred all questions to Helmer but noted CMedia staff were continuing to run the center on a volunteer basis until the issues were sorted out.
Former CMedia staffer George Mangan said part of the problem was Howell was never around.
“He was always off doing other stuff,” Mangan said. “His attention to day-to-day operations was absolutely zero.”
Howell, who lives in Petaluma, acknowledged he had a “different modality of working” that caused him to often prefer to work from cafes rather than the Mendocino Avenue center, which he called an “inhospitable work environment.”
According to his website, the past year has been a prolific one for Howell. He writes the Rivertown Report blog for the Petaluma Argus-Courier, which is owned by The Press Democrat’s parent company, Sonoma Media Investments.
He also released his latest novel, The Metataur, participated in the Petaluma Postcard Project, where “Petaluma artists reimagine what a postcard can be,” and turned the stairwell of a Victorian home into a 1980s-era VHS video store.
His latest artistic endeavor, Le Drama Clüb, opens Saturday in a Petaluma gallery.
The 1980s-themed exhibit is “an exploration of manufactured nostalgia that invites participants to indulge and remake their memories of a cultural epoch forgotten by popular culture.”