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Mutiny at Government TV

Last week as Linda Ruffing was packing up her stuff preparing to leave office on February 15, one pet project the PEG (Public/Education/Government) channel (Channel 3) imploded in a hurricane of bizarre allegations and weird inaccuracies.

"Scott Schneider is a thief, and Linda Ruffing is a liar," thundered Mendocino TV's Terry Vaughn. Vaughn has been under contract to operate and provide content for what was once Public Access Television. On his own page Mr. Vaughn launched a firestorm of incomprehensible grammar, amusing misspellings and mystifying allegations, all of it utterly incomprehensible to mere mortals.

"$70,000 has been misappropriated," was the headline. Scott Schneider (an administrative coordinator wholly responsible to the City Manager) was moving funds around at his own discretion, doctoring financial statements and misappropriating money. (Seventy grand!) Nobody has called the cops yet. Groping for traction in his own deluge of calumny Mendocino TV's Terry Vaughn has bitten the hand that has been feeding him — hard.

In our compact and insular coastal village, Public Access Television was once enormously popular. Franchise fees paid to the city from Fort Bragg Comcast cable subscribers were divided between the City and the Public Access Station. The City took half. In spite of many inefficiencies the old station had a good thing going in the old days. They operated out of the now abandoned Footlighters building on Laurel Street. Senior Perspectives, Fort Bragg Outlook, Jazz and local music were a staple of our community conversation. On rainy Fort Bragg evenings, Public Access gave local viewers the option of tuning out the ocean of mad and unruly noise broadcast at us from over the hill, and tuning in to our own stories and our own artists. Public Access was Fort Bragg being Fort Bragg. Of course we loved it.

When the bottom fell out of the autonomous public station in 2013 there was plenty of blame to go around. Chronic non-payment of rent, a crazy unauthorized assignment to PEG of the the old Footlighters building where PEG lived, management by wistful aspiration, and in the end a catastrophic lawsuit, combined to inelegantly run the station into the ditch.

To this day the building sits sadly vacant, mouldering in massive encumbrances from the lawsuit. The loss of our local television station was a grievous loss to the City but it was also a loss of revenue for the City and an opportunity for autocratic City Hall management to find (yet another) focus.

Linda Ruffing's antidote to the meltdown quite reasonably was to dump the bulky, truly antiquated technology and create a digital alternative. It had to happen, but it removed the public from Fort Bragg Public TV. City Hall took over. The producers, artists, writers, musicians and volunteer technicians that had given the old station its oddball lovability were cast into outer-darkness, never to be heard from again.


What we got instead was Terry Vaughn.

Terry Vaughn is a long-time digital television entrepreneur. More power to him. When the City Manager tapped him to recreate Public Access TV Terry was already vigorously building his own station, Mendocino TV. Terry Vaughn probably has more technical expertise and television production know-how than anyone else in the city. He was purchased for $50,000 a year. Vaughn’s privately owned and operated Mendocino TV, adopted the PEG channel like a poor relation.

The glaring conflict of interest did not bother Mr. Vaughn or dissuade the City. PEG and Mendocino TV would be friendly competitors run by the same guy. The City Council formed a (PEG) ad hoc committee originally including Councilman Cimolino and Doug Hammerstrom to oversee the takeover. When Hammerstrom’s abuse of incumbency terminated his reign of sycophancy in the 2014 election, former Mayor, current Councilman Dave Turner, stepped in.

Terry Vaughn's job was to get a digital PEG station built and organized. The City bought the equipment. It all took a great while. For a long interval no actual station came out of it. When they finally did get it running the funky old Mendocino volunteer television had sadly degraded into Soviet style non information.

They filled empty space with canned symphony music observing that everyone likes classical music. It looked like TV produced in communist Romania. An odd feature even today is their policy of playing old, often very old, city council meetings as fillers (just in case you want to reflect back a year or so).

In the void of dreary fillers, Terry Vaughn found an enhanced opportunity. His one-man production company provided content by producing a series of shows and selling them to the station he was being paid to run. Predictably, his programing was tedious in the extreme (in my opinion, of course). Certainly there was no public in it except it is the public who is watching the station.

Terry Vaughn cranked out TV without a soul. The cash flow went into his own pocket.

When the Mendocino TV contract expired, Mr. Vaughn naturally asked the City for more cash. The City demurred.

Mid-level City Hall administrative coordinator Scott Schneider, in no sense a determiner of contract allocations, was the bearer of bad news. Terry's lid blew and he launched a barrage of invective aimed at his (former) employer.

I spoke to the perplexed and astonished Scott Schneider, and then later in the week at length to a crazily angry, quite possibly insane, Terry Vaughn. I also went to Councilman Dave Turner, he of the PEG Ad Hoc committee, but alas the encroaching deadline prevented me getting his no doubt informed perspective. Perhaps more later. I know he conferred with Schneider.

As far as I can see, Terry Vaughn’s obscure complaint is that proposed allocations to PEG include charges for the technical staff at City Hall. The Granicus digital recording system that has worked so well to bring the City Council meetings both to the City page and to PEG amounts to a "blending" of funds.

Possibly a point.

A comparatively small point for all the magnitude it has assumed in Vaughn’s spin. Vaughn now finds this intermingling of public and private funds mortally objectionable, although he did not complain when it was he who was using the council meetings for content.

In all of Mr. Vaughn's convoluted high decibel quibbling, actual facts were hard to come by. As the City prepares itself to say good by to our City Manager, the legacy that she leaves behind is the consolidation of power and money at City Hall.

VisitFortBragg and the PEG station were once truly successful initiatives run by local people funded (or partially funded) by prudent little contracts with City Hall but managed independently. Both were highly successful. All that gradually ended in the long-running Ruffing power consolidation. Financial control and centralized management under Linda Ruffing have put an end to much that was charming and unique in our little town.

In congenitally self-determining Fort Bragg, Ms Ruffing’s unpopularity runs very deep. Terry Vaughn was Linda Ruffing's stopgap, and the willing tool of City Hall. Now he's mad. Volunteer community television devolved into Government Television by crass intention. They could not have done it without Terry Vaughn. Now City power has moved the physical studio into City Hall, and propose that a full time information tech person (Mateo) on the City payroll do the job Terry once sort of did. Fort Bragg's bureaucracy now has new technology and their hand firmly on the controls. Terry Vaughn has been cast adrift. He did not like it one bit.

One Comment

  1. Marco McClean February 7, 2018

    Hi, Rex. I have a funny story to tell you about the public teevee channel in Fort Bragg. Just a little history.

    In 1986 MCCET (Mendocino Coast Community Educational Television) had a way into the cable via a rackmounted metal pizza box and a patchbay in a little corner room in the Fort Bragg high school library. Charlene Aumack, the school librarian, was in charge of the channel because she had the key to that room, and she and four or five others from various organizations –the hospital, County Schools, etc.– sat on the board of the channel. The result of years of this system up to that point was that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, if you had cable and you tuned to the channel, you’d see an alphanumeric display of the time/date/temperature and wind speed/direction, that came from a propeller on a stick on the roof of the library; that was it. I think Kay Rudin might have put something on once in awhile, a concert or something. I don’t remember; I’ll ask her. But almost all the time there was nothing. No public use.

    They had a couple of VHS tape recorders, a couple of cameras, an editing deck, some video lights, and a few thousand dollars a year for pocket change, all courtesy of the cable company, who had agreed to provide Fort Bragg with a public access channel in return for their multi-million-dollar cable monopoly.

    I started a public access variety show, where I put up posters inviting people with an act or a spiel or something to show off, and people came to my house every week to eat spaghetti, sign up on a blackboard, and take their turn in front of a camera, in the studio in the back bedroom, with a two-hour tape running, no pausing, no editing. A woman brought her choir kids in all their robes and hats. Some old jug band men came a couple of times. A red-haired woman came in every week like clockwork to read her bible into the camera. A fisherman/diver (who has since drowned) showed things he found in the water, a painter speed-painted landscapes and cartoons, we played Scrabble on teevee. People did interviews. Ray Rice projected his animated films and talked about how he made them. Etc. A couple of very little children, Andy and Cinnamon, always started the show by standing in front of the title painted on the wall, The Radio *Free Earth TV Show, and winding up a music box that played Gounod’s /Funeral March of a Marionette/. I still have all the tapes; over a hundred tapes.

    The channel by law /had/ to let me do a show. But they were charging me $20 each time (!), and they never let me use the channel live from the library, and by a year into the two-and-a-half-year run of the show they were giving my tapes to the city’s lawyer before they put them on, in case the city might be liable for something, and Charlene often didn’t put the tape on until late at night, hours past when it was scheduled –with no notice on the screen– because she didn’t like the message she imagined that someone in the show was sending. See, she’d play it, but by her lights she didn’t have to play it when anyone would be likely to be watching for it, and she could black out any portion she had a personal problem of; she’d just pull the video wire out. One time it was a science experiment that Charlene was afraid someone might try at home and then sue the city if they got hurt. One time it was a standup comic who came up from the Bay Area– she didn’t like him; he wasn’t appropriate for dinnertime, she said, he was too shouty. You never knew what would set her off. I think you know that no other public access channel in America operated this way. It’s just the Fort Bragg way. And it’s not just Fort Bragg; it’s all of these benighted little burgs. Philo, KZYX; it’s the same over there. The people in charge just want to keep getting their money. They don’t care about anything else. Certainly they don’t care about doing what the medium is there for, which is to provide a free platform for creative people to broadcast from; that is too much trouble for them, so that’s out.

    Wait, there’s just a little more: In order to get the teevee show on in the first place, in early 1986, after showing up month after month at these MCCET board meetings, I’d had enough of their bullshit, and I went out for a couple of hours one afternoon and got 60+ signatures of business owners in Fort Bragg on a petition complaining to MCCET and the city, and that pissed off the MCCET board (“Marco!” Alice Wittig, Mendocino High School librarian, snarled, “You DON’T go around telling people that WE’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!”) but it did the trick. It’s the law to let the public have access to the public access channel. That’s why it’s called that.

    Here was the entire chore and expense of actually running the Fort Bragg public access cable teevee channel in 1986, and it’s really not too different now: You had to shove a tape in the cable-head-connected tape deck and press play. Or you could switch on a camera in the studio, though the board of directors never agreed to that. “It’s too expensive to do that, Marco,” they said. “We’re not NBC or CBS. We’re just a tiny, struggling teevee channel, here.” I think that was Matt Huber who said that. I pointed at the camera and said, “It’s right there. This meeting can be on the cable. It’s one switch.” They said, “You don’t understand, there are complicated liability issues, there are all kinds of things that we just don’t want to get into, here. NO.” So I set up a camera and recorded one of their meetings to put on later, to show them how easy it is, and at that meeting Charlene ordered me to turn /off/ the camera if I were going to speak to the board, because, as she put it: “/I/ know what you’re trying to do, and it’s rude. It’s unethical to be a reporter and a, uh, /citizen/ at the same time.”

    One time I went to the board with a proposal: I would set up some turntables, a mixer, a couple of microphones and a telephone interface, entirely at my expense, and the high school kids could use the public access channel for like a radio station on teevee. “I’ll come in on Monday and set it all up for you.” The board was aghast. One of them said, “Of course not. The school isn’t equipped for that. There are no provisions for that. Who would watch them? And obviously we can’t allow people to call on the phone and have it go out on the air. What if someone /said something!/” (?!)

    Another said, “There’s already that. People can just call old Elly’s show on KDAC if they wanta talk on the radio.” Alder Thurman, mayor of Fort Bragg and also on the board of MCCET, shouted/harrumphed at me, “People don’t want to hear people’s VOICES coming out of their TEEVEE SET!”

    Every show I did gave out my home phone number on the screen. And the very worst message consequence of two years of this was, “Why don’t y’all go back to San Francisco with your AIDS buddies, ya bunch o’ faggots,” apropos of God knows what.

    Marco McClean

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