The members of Santa Rosa’s community media center voted Saturday to dissolve the publicly funded nonprofit group after accusations of financial mismanagement led the City Council late last year to cancel the service contract that was its main source of income.
The decision confirmed an earlier vote by the CMedia board to wind down the insolvent media organization, which since 1997 has received public money to broadcast public meetings and provide media tools and training to the public.
“It’s very sad,” said Elaine Holtz, who produced more than 275 episodes of her televised talk show “Women’s Spaces” at the Mendocino Avenue media center. “We lost a treasure.”
The move capped a tumultuous year for a nonprofit that struggled for relevance and new revenue in an age where digital technologies have made it easier than ever to shoot, edit and share videos.
In the end, only 68 people were members of the center, and just 16 turned up to vote on the dissolution at the final membership meeting Jan. 14.
Though under pressure for years, the latest trouble came to light when the organization fired its executive director, Daedalus Howell, and its assistant director, Desiree Poindexter, in October, after the discovery of an unauthorized $23,000 cash advance on the CMedia credit card, which Howell said he did to make payroll, including his own $85,000 annual salary.
A subsequent city audit found the nonprofit had over three years used $329,000 in public money meant for the purchase of equipment and instead spent it on salaries.
The audit also questioned the propriety of Howell’s regular use of his CMedia credit card at area restaurants, wine bars and coffee shops.
The Petaluma novelist and conceptual artist charged more than $10,000 in expenses on the credit card over his three-year tenure.
Board Chairman Jim Helmer blamed the demise on a combination of “very vague explanations” from staff, “cryptic” audits that board members didn’t fully understand, and a lack of oversight from the city.
But Helmer laid most of the blame at the feet of Howell and Poindexter, who he said benefited from “the misuse of funds” because they allowed their own salaries to continue to be paid until the organization’s accounts were drained “nearly down to zero.”
“I believe a form of fraud was perpetrated,” Helmer said.
Neither Howell, who once likened CMedia board meetings to “a Monty Python sketch,” nor Poindexter returned calls and emails seeking comment.
Last year, as the organization unraveled, Howell laid off Poindexter and resigned himself, then both were terminated by the board after the discovery of the cash advance on the organization’s credit card.
In November, Howell in an interview defended his use of the CMedia credit card, saying his expenses were legitimate business to expand and cultivate relationships for the nonprofit.
“In my opinion, I did everything as appropriately as I could,” he said at the time.
While Helmer said Howell and Poindexter made the board aware of the need to raise additional money, the directors never explained the extent to which funds restricted for use on equipment were being tapped, Helmer said.
“What they didn’t say is ‘We can’t make payroll and so we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” Helmer said. The City Council in early December canceled the remainder of the group’s three-year contract, which represented 98 percent of its revenue. The city hired some of CMedia’s employees to ensure the meetings of the City Council and other public bodies continue to be recorded and broadcast.
CMedia officials have filed a complaint with the Santa Rosa Police Department alleging misuse of public funds, Helmer said. Sgt. Marcus Sprague confirmed a crime report had been made involving CMedia but said he could not discuss the nature of the complaint or any resulting investigation.
Helmer said Howell filed a claim for unemployment benefits after his termination, but that claim was denied because CMedia filed documentation backing up Howell’s firing, Helmer said.
Poindexter has filed a demand for unpaid wages, which has yet to be resolved, he said.
Eric McHenry, the city’s chief information officer, said the city is partnering with the Sonoma County Library to establish a video lab in the four Santa Rosa library branches.
It also is exploring a move of the public meeting broadcast functions CMedia performed to City Hall and relocating a recording studio to the Bennett Valley Senior Center.