The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a series of measures to begin the process of moving the production of public access programming — including the broadcast of public meetings — in-house, following years of concerns about the operations, accounting and transparency of the government-funded body that currently does it — New Orleans Access Television, Inc.
Last week, Councilman JP Morrell called for the city’s Office of Inspector General to investigate whether the organization “prudently or ethically” spent millions of dollars in public funds. Thus far, the office has responded with a request for additional information, including whether the money that NOA-TV gets to provide the service can be considered public funding.
NOA-TV is a nonprofit run by a public board mostly appointed by the council, and is currently responsible for airing council meetings on cable TV, as well as maintaining two other channels to produce and air public, educational, and government programming. It’s funded by Cox at the council’s direction, as part of the city’s franchise agreement with Cox Communications, which allows the company to operate a cable communications system in New Orleans.
NOA-TV doesn’t have any formal contract with the city or council, according to Morrell, but all of its assets are city property, according to a 2017 audit.
Thursday’s council actions made some technical changes to the franchise agreement, including eliminating a requirement for the council to use a third-party to run public access television. And they created two new city positions — a production coordinator and broadcast and production manager — to run public access programming in-house rather than through NOA-TV.
Morrell said the measure “simply begins the process of bringing that production in house,” and says he hopes that transition will be done by the end of the year.
NOA-TV Executive Director Elton Jones did not respond to requests for comment and did not appear at Thursday’s meeting.
Problems began to emerge at NOA-TV in 2011 when its funding was cut. Previously, the program received a flat fee from Cox. The agreement was amended so that Cox only had to provide a certain percentage of its annual revenues. In 2011, NOA-TV received $1 million from Cox. Last year they only received $386,000, according to Morrell’s letter.
In 2014, concerns rose after the council became aware that NOA-TV had defaulted on a lease agreement with WVUE-TV, its landlord, and that the organization failed to turn over requested documents during an audit.
In 2017, then-Councilman and current Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams launched a forensic audit to try and resolve these ongoing mysteries, after he said the organization had failed to answer those questions willingly.
The audit turned up some evidence that Morrell finds somewhat troubling. To start, it found seven different bank accounts associated with NOA-TV, some of which were for another business, Spun-TV, which was apparently a separate company set up by NOA-TV.
By creating Spun-TV, “the hope was/is to officially launch as a digital media company, taking advantage of the Louisiana Film and Video Tax Credit Programs, with the support of the City of New Orleans, angel investors and/or start up venture capital funds,” according to answers provided to auditors.
The audit found that from 2007 to 2016, the company took in $148,000 but spent $721,000, not including labor costs — resulting in a $572,000 loss. By 2016, Spun-TV had already “been sitting dormant for the past 6 or so years,” according to the audit, but continued to spend money every year on legal fees and to maintain intellectual property.
The audit also revealed that NOA-TV had pursued several spin-offs of the “Spun” brand, including Spun Productions, Spun Artist Management and a T-shirt company called Spun Threads.
Another Spun product was Spun Cafe, which was temporarily located at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans and was described by NOA-TV as a “branding opportunity.” According to the audit, NOA-TV “purchased approximately $115,000 in furniture and fixtures related to a sponsorship agreement” with the CAC. The audit said that although the agreement ended in 2015, all of that property remains at the CAC and none of it was listed on an NOA-TV inventory list.
“I don’t understand any of it, honestly,” Morrell told Verite. “I’m trying to decipher the fact that the audit had to go through seven bank accounts. … I think the lack of transparency was probably the number one thing that made this issue.”
The audit noted that a portion of NOA-TV assets, all of which is city property, is not insured.
It also raised issues with NOA-TV’s governance. NOA-TV is supposed to be run by a board with seven council appointees, one mayoral appointee and one member appointed by Cox. By 2017, only two out of the nine board members were considered “active,” and the audit noted the board was having a problem getting a majority of members to a meeting to take votes.
One of those two active members, Dottie Belletto, told Verite she hadn’t been on the board in years, was never replaced, and that she didn’t believe there was an active board anymore.
“I think the board dissolved,” she said.
Morrell said that he hoped that by bringing public access programming in-house, the council could not only solve the transparency and budget problems, but also improve the quality of public access programming.
He said he had ideas for how a channel could be used by public officials and community members, or partnering with local schools to get kids media experience. He also wants to make sure all the content is streaming online, and not solely available through cable TV.
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