Access Limited?

There are no soap operas on Tucson's public-access TV channels. The drama is behind-the-scenes.

It's not one big happy family at the Access Tucson building on Broadway Boulevard downtown. Feuding factions are arguing about the appropriate role for the independent, nonprofit organization that manages public-access television in Tucson.

Established in 1984, the company's mission is to facilitate "public dialogue and participatory democracy through citizen access to television and other electronic media." Access Tucson now has an annual budget of almost $1.5 million, which comes primarily from a fee levied on each Cox Cable subscriber as part of that company's franchise agreement with the city of Tucson.

Overseeing the 1,800-member organization is a 15-member board of directors, nine elected by the membership and six appointed. Day-to-day operations are handled by Executive Director Sam Behrend and a staff of 20.

According to its agreement with the city, the company is to assist both individuals and groups. It does this through training classes and making available TV production equipment and air time.

For years, tensions have been growing between individual producers and the increasing number of community-based organizations wanting programs. Some producers feel they are being elbowed out in favor of less controversial alternatives, an allegation most board members deny.

Dating back over a decade, this dispute often gets personal. Dan Harrigan, producer of a live music show for the past 14 years, calls the board majority "idiots who know nothing of the process [of producing television shows]." Thus, he says, "Sam Behrend can get them to do anything."

Most board members disagree. John Crouch believes the, "organization runs extremely well." Another long-time member, Mike Haggerty, says, "I have total faith in Sam Behrend."

Behrend's pay is a major point of contention with critics. Even though they voted him a salary increase last October, four members of the board interviewed for this article claimed not to know or remember what the executive director earns. Recently, elected board member Jerry D'Paco, indicated his salary at about $85,000, a figure Behrends calls "a little high."

The salary paid to second-in-command La Monte Ward is rumored to be approximately $65,000. But D'Paco has been trying to determine what it is for almost a year and charges his request for information has been stonewalled.

Based on what he has seen and experienced, disabled producer Mike Pliska thinks it is time for a change in leadership. "Sam and La Monte make quite a bit of money," he says, "and I would like to see them not be there anymore."

Another controversy was the 1998 purchase of a large truck to allow for remote production of television shows. Critics charge the $60,000 price and almost $200,000 spent on new equipment for the vehicle was questionable. But board member Crouch replies, "The truck was worth much more than was paid for it."

While the Internal Revenue Service is looking into this and several other Access Tucson issues, the truck sits mostly idle. It was only used six days in its first year, and another 14 times over the past year.

If the truck hasn't been on the road much, some from Access Tucson have been. In July, six representatives went to Washington, D.C., for the Alliance for Community Media Conference, and in the last seven months the organization has spent almost $10,000 on travel.

The majority of board members downplays criticism. Past president Michael Serres says comments come from "a vocal minority faction who don't want change. It is a few individuals trying to make waves."

But D'Paco, one of only two board members who question the operation, disagrees. "A minority representative like myself," he says, "is pretty closed out of the process. It almost seems like the tail wags the dog and Sam controls the board."

A major contention of some producers is that individuals are shoved aside in favor of community-based shows. Board member Linda Hoffman says, "Most of the people have been run off in the past 10 years and that apparently was the goal. Basically, Access Tucson has gone to running [a lot] of out-of-town taped programming since it can control the content."

Most board members and Behrend disagree with that assessment. "It's simply not true," he says.

Figures supplied by Behrend indicate that over the past 10 years the amount of live and taped studio production time has decreased by 9 percent while new programs have increased by almost 40 percent. In addition, since July only 6 percent of the company's broadcast time, or about 130 hours per month, are first-run, live shows.

Opponents of the operation also allege they are harassed by the management of Access Tucson. "Besmirch the messenger is the tactic they've used for years," says Dan Harrigan.

"There is no truth at all to the 'get them' [theory]," says Sam Behrend, "We just don't do that."

At the same time, according to board member Michael Serres, "the staff has to put up with things and abuse which no one should have to put up with."

As charges and counter-charges fly, the two views of what Access Tucson has become diverge widely. "It's working," says Serres. Plus, adds Crouch, "It is very important to take care of it. In terms of democracy, [public access] needs to be protected."

But Hoffman, who hasn't decided yet whether she'll seek another term in upcoming board elections, concludes, "Access Tucson was supposed to be free speech for people, a video soapbox. But it has turned into a bureaucracy and bad government TV."