For over 40 years, Houston's Pacifica affiliate, KPFT, has delivered important community-oriented (and über-liberal) shows that listeners can't find anywhere else. Which is why it's a big deal when there's a shake-up that could potentially affect programming -- and an even bigger deal when the station's board members don't want to tell the listening public why.
Six members of KPFT's Local Station Board are calling for the termination of the board's secretary, and have publicly posted an agenda accusing him of threatening people's safety and making bomb threats. If you think a station that traffics in democratic ideals and speaking truth to power would require its board members to substantiate such serious allegations, you'd be wrong.
Here's what Secretary Ted Weisgal, who's served KPFT off and on for about 11 years, is being accused of:
-- humiliating and threatening the safety of people who disagree with him at board meetings
-- trying to "split listenership and threaten one group with another" and making "threats of the use of a bomb to a very excited and angry crowd."
-- "inappropriately misrepresenting KPFT at public events"
-- using his expert knowledge of Robert's Rules of Order to hijack meetings and bully others
-- inciting "many board members to quit."
As for the bomb threat: In a written response to his accusers, Weisgal alleged that he made a "misunderstood joke" during a heated meeting after others had made "what he thought were some serious comments regarding damaging KPFT property," in the hopes that it would cause "such a stir that the meeting quickly returned to order."
However, "jokes" about bombs at KPFT -- a station that was actually bombed by the Ku Klux Klan -- aren't taken lightly.
Weisgal has 17 minutes to defend this "bomb threat" and the other allegations at a special board meeting November 16; a two-thirds vote is required to remove him. (The LSB has 24 members, and a quorum must be present for the meeting to move forward).
We'll get to Weisgal's story in a moment. Right now we need to point out that board member Richard Uzzell -- who said when he was running for the board that he saw the importance of helping "our culture to be more just, fair, open, responsive" -- hung up on us when we tried to ask about this upcoming meeting. (Being "open," it seems, is for other people. Uzzell simply cannot be bothered.)
Board member Nancy Hentschel -- who's also on Pacifica's national board -- at first agreed to speak with us, but then changed her mind and explained in an e-mail that "all issues like this one are executive session matters. it is KPFT's intent to honor the dignity of our employees, volunteers, as well as our board members." (Just to be clear: It's perfectly okay for Hentschl to publicly accuse a fellow board member of criminal behavior; it's just not okay to be asked to comment on that.)
Curiously, Hentschel also accused us of having "already decided what you want to publish," and then stressed the importance of "solid information, due process, and respect for dignity."
The odd thing is that Hentschel and her colleagues also accused Weisgal of using his business -- Leisure Learning Unlimited -- "to teach people how to fight KPFT with letters and complaints to the FCC etc."
Hentschel teaches an LLU course (individuals pay $35; couples pay $60) on "Protesting for Better Home Construction," which dovetails with Hentschel's work on property taxes and "homeowner association reform" she advocates through Texas HOA Reform. Hentschel is passionate about property taxes in part because, according to this 2009 Instant News Fort Bend report, she owned two Sugar Land homes while not actually living in Sugar Land. (Nothing screams lookin' out for the little guy like complaining about paying taxes on two homes in Sugar Land.)
Weisgal has accused Hentschel of destroying KPFT's Anti-Racism and Diversity Committee. In a letter to KPFT colleagues, Weisgal wrote that the committee, which he chaired, "organized regular Town Hall meetings" and "interviewed and broadcast interviews from prominent elders in the Houston African American community during Black History Month." Weisgal wrote that Hentschel "orchestrated a takeover" of the committee and then "after a year of doing nothing, she introduced a motion to kill the committee. It no longer exists, nor do these outreach efforts or Town Hall meetings."
Board Chairman Robert Mark didn't return our calls. Board member Darelle Robbins called us back, but we didn't get to speak with her in time. So the only accuser we spoke with was Hank Lamb -- who was incredibly gracious and open, and who told us he'd probably get in trouble for his candor.
We expected more from board members like Mark, Uzzell and Hentschel -- after all, a 2012 audit of Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants to Pacifica determined that the nonprofit was in "noncompliance with statutory provisions of the Communications Act for open meetings, open financial records, and documenting operating procedures." Weisgal sees his potential ouster as symptomatic of such problems, and wrote in a public statement that he's being attacked in part for telling others about the audit findings.
KPFT General Manager Duane Bradley, who's a Pacifica employee, told us that much of this boils down to "what's essentially a quarrel among children."
Weisgal has been able to commandeer meetings due to his expertise in Robert's Rules of Order, which Pacifica's mammoth bylaws require. (It turns out that, thanks to Pacifica's draconian bylaws, fixing a typo in an agenda or meeting minutes is a Herculean effort. Between these bylaws, a love of well-populated boards and committees, and a reliance on Robert's Rules of Order, Pacifica operates much like the bloated government bureaucracies it is ostensibly supposed to shine a light on).
Lamb told us, "Ted is a pretty honorable guy, and really, he's an intelligent guy and everything, and he knows a good deal about what he can get away with using Robert's Rules and manipulating meetings. But at the same time, you can't be on an LSB and do due diligence in your job and [meet] a code of ethics if you're pissing everybody off all the time."
According to Lamb, "In one case, [Weisgal] made a gentleman's agreement on the side because he had irked so many people, that he would leave the LSB. And at the next meeting, he tendered his resignation, but to fill the spot, he put his name back in. So he had no intention of leaving; he manipulated the situation and was not honorable about that."
Lamb feels that Weisgal's behavior just gums up the works of an already inefficient machine. He says getting 24 board members on the same page is "like herding cats...you always end up with two main factions and two other splinter groups or something like that. It makes moving ahead with a course of action really tough, and that's the exact same problem with Pacifica national right now."
Furthermore, Lamb says, infighting just keeps the board from addressing more important matters -- such as funding.
Board member Leo Gold, who didn't want to comment on the allegations against Weisgal, couldn't agree more.
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"...it is Pacifica's complex, even convoluted, structure which can cause many problems for the network and its radio stations," Gold told us in an e-mail. He says Pacifica's national board -- and not the local station board -- is directly responsible for KPFT's "financial and operational management.....Accordingly, KPFT's board is literally 'not responsible,' in the truest sense of the word, for the most important aspects of the station, and when something is literally not responsible, it is highly likely that it will act irresponsibly. The irony in the Weisgal case is that both sides seem to believe that the other is the irresponsible party. The big picture may suggest that all are. That does not mean that they are 'to blame.' The blame, if there is any, may well fall on Pacifica's structure itself. My own efforts are currently in the area of trying to reform the structure, rather than conduct trials on the local KPFT board."
KPFT has so many dedicated, talented volunteers who work hard to bring Houston wonderful talk shows and music. It's a shame that these folks who show up to do their shows are somewhat at the mercy of grown-ups who fight over things like Robert's Rules of Order. It's an even greater shame that board members like Mark, Hentschel and Uzzell expect Houstonians to cough up money for this programming, yet don't want to be accountable when they publicly accuse a fellow board member of outrageous conduct. Pacifica, KPFT and Houston deserve so much more.
The special meeting over Weisgal is scheduled for 9 a.m. November 16 at the Houston Institute for Culture, 708C Telephone Road.