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.