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'When are you going to resign?': Public blasts WTVP board's handling of financial crisis

WTVP's studios are located in downtown Peoria.
Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
WTVP's studios are located in downtown Peoria.

Community anger and anxiety about WTVP's direction boiled over during the public comment section of the station's regular board meeting Tuesday.

As promised by station board chairman Andrew Rand, the rumors that the station would be permanently dissolved by its board of directors on Tuesday didn't come to pass, but it's been a difficult year for the beleaguered public television station nonetheless.

Former president and CEO Lesley Matuszak took her own life a day after resigning in late September. The station's financial problems first publicly came to light a couple weeks later, when Rand announced the station would cut costs by $1.5 million. The Peoria public television station has since laid off nine employees and indefinitely suspended publication of Peoria magazine.

It's also led to questions from both the Peoria Police Department and Illinois Attorney General's Office. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has also said it may ask its inspector general to investigate what's happened, as WTVP requests more funding.

Rand and the board have repeatedly ascribed the "questionable, unauthorized, or improper" spending which led to the cuts on the station's previous management.

In a statement sent out after the meeting, the station for the first time publicly identified Matuszak and former financial and human resources director Lin McLaughlin as the alleged sources who approved that spending. The statement said their resignations were unexpected, and the Peoria Police Department is investigating evidence of potential criminal activity.

But many viewers who spoke Tuesday following a lengthy executive session don't hold the board blameless for the dire financial and legal straits WTVP now finds itself in.

"I think all of you ought to resign. This board ought to be reconstituted. How could you let this happen? You are asleep at the switch," said Elaine Hopkins, a retired reporter who worked at the Peoria Journal Star for over three decades.

Kathy McNeil of the American Civil Liberties Union's Peoria chapter said the community's trust in Rand's board is shattered.

"Under the current leadership, the stations faced egregious instances of financial mismanagement," she said. "Millions of dollars intended to sustain and enhance community programming have been siphoned away through fraudulent means. This betrayal of trust jeopardizes the station's ability to fulfill its mission and directly impacts the community it serves."

Peoria ACLU president Jessica Thomas called Monday for the resignation of Rand and his domestic partner, vice chair Sid Ruckriegel.

A portrait of Dr. Phil Weinberg hangs outside WTVP's studios in Peoria. Weinberg, the former chairman of Bradley University's Electrical Engineering department, played a pivotal role in the founding of both WTVP and WCBU. The two media outlets aren't affiliated.
Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
A portrait of Dr. Phil Weinberg hangs outside WTVP's studios in Peoria. Weinberg, the former chairman of Bradley University's Electrical Engineering department, played a pivotal role in the founding of both WTVP and WCBU. The two media outlets aren't affiliated.

Bruce Brown, a former Peoria city council member, lamented that the station's leadership has fallen a long way since the days of Peoria public media champion Dr. Phil Weinberg and former president and general manager Elwin Basquin.

"What's taken place here didn't happen in the last two months. It has been going on for two or three years, clear in plain sight," Brown said. "And your responsibility at this point is to instill some confidence in the public, for which there is none. Do you not understand that? You don't get it?"

Chet Tomczyk, who served as WTVP's president and CEO from 1996 to 2014, said he recognizes the tough spot the board is in, but implored them to protect the station's 52-year-old legacy in Central Illinois.

"I hope that you can find ways to balance this thing out. Don't take it down," he said. "If the rumors are anywhere near true, fight, fight, fight to keep this place open. It's too important to the community."

Scott Hedden, a retired banker, offered up his advice to the board based on his professional experiences with financial crises.

"The number one problem, if I was sitting in your chairs, and I've been on boards, is you have a crisis of confidence with the public," he said. "And after looking at those financial statements, that don't paint a very good picture with your cash balance and the losses so far, and what you must be incurring on a daily basis."

Tamra Swiderski, director of finance for the National Educational Telecommunications Association, said to date this fiscal year the station has brought in $1.4 million and spent $1.9 million, coming out to a negative operating debt of $468,000.

Swiderski said cash flow for the fiscal year through the end of November is about $352,000. She said $570,000 was provided by investments, and about $178,000 has been paid back on borrowing so far. She said cash on hand for the end of the period ending Nov. 30 was just over $200,000. The station's fiscal year started July 1.

Board treasurer Helen Barrick noted that the station has had a number of one-time expenses pop up, such as an annual fee for fundraising software.

"We're going to try and amortize these over a time period. So we have a little more level playing field, and we get these into a little better contingency," Barrick said.

Rand praised the work Barrick has done over the past couple of months, noting she's worked five and a half or six-day weeks to get the station's money situation in hand. Barrick is a retired partner at CliftonLarsonAllen. That's the firm that also puts together WTVP's annual audited financial statements. The station's audit for the previous fiscal year remains unavailable.

A statement sent out Tuesday evening said that the board had discussed "privileged commercial and financial information related to securing the station’s future as a locally operated public television station" during its closed session.

"For over 52 years, WTVP has been an invaluable asset to our community, in large part because of the thousands of donors and members who have supported its mission," read the statement. "This support is necessary, valued, and not taken for granted. The board recognizes transparency is essential to continue to earn the community’s trust so that the future of the station remains secure."

The statement the board will review recommendations in early 2024, and reveal details of that plan after board approval.

The board also appointed Kim Armstrong to the executive committee. That's the core group of board trustees that oversees WTVP and can act for the board between meetings.

Rand said Armstrong is helping to hone the executive board's messaging and "manage claims that could be made against officers and the corporations, and the officers (don't) have to try to do that themselves." Armstrong is vice president of marketing and institutional advancement at Illinois Central College.

The executive committee also includes Rand, Ruckriegel, Barrick, and Stephen Shipley.

WTVP serves the Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, and Galesburg areas. It is not affiliated with WCBU.

Note: Jessica Thomas is a member of WCBU's Community Advisory Board, which doesn't have a role in the station's editorial decisions.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.
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