A special-called meeting of the Alabama Educational Television Commission on Tuesday marked the first time the commission has met since firing Alabama Public Television Executive Director Allan Pizatto and former Chief Financial Officer Pauline Howland in June — a move that sparked exasperation on the part of many APT supporters and the resignations of nine members of APT’s fundraising boards — but the commissioners did not meet for long.
AETC President Ferris Stephens convened the meeting just after noon on Tuesday to discuss hiring a law firm to represent the commission in a lawsuit filed by Pizatto. The commission asked an attorney for an opinion on whether they could go into executive session to discuss the hiring. The attorney quickly offered that opinion, and the six commissioners present (Les Barnett was absent) disappeared for about 20 minutes to discuss the suit.
When the commissioners returned, they voted unanimously to hire Birmingham-based firm Wallace, Jordan, Ratliff & Brandt to represent them in the suit.
The suit, filed by Pizzato’s attorney Mark White, claims that AETC violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act by discussing Pizzato’s job performance in executive session during the June meeting, an act that White says is prohibited for public employees who, like Pizzato, must file a statement of economic interest with the Alabama Ethics Commission. According to White, AETC refused to respond to multiple requests for records (including audio tapes, agendas and minutes) from the June meeting and another meeting in March, which White says is a violation of the Open Records Act.
Howland is also being represented by White’s law firm, White, Arnold & Dowd.
White told Weld two weeks ago that he did not know of anyone who had obtained recordings of the commission meetings, but he’s since said that he knew people had gotten access to the recordings.
Weld asked Stephens after the meeting Tuesday why there were delays in allowing public access to the tapes. “We wanted to make sure they were accurate, and, so, but they have been released,” Stephens said.
Pizzato’s complaint also alleges that Stephens, who serves as an assistant attorney general for Alabama, is not eligible to serve on the commission because he currently holds a public office. White cites a section of the Alabama Code: “No member of the commission shall hold any other office of profit or trust under the United States, the State of Alabama, or any other political subdivision thereof.”
Stephens said those allegations were addressed in a response to the lawsuit. “There’s not merit to it,” he said.
While the commissioners were out, APT Chief Operating Officer Charlie Grantham, who was present at the meeting, left and returned with a box of petitions. Two groups, Faithful America and Credo Action, presented the petitions — with their 114,000 signatures from around the nation — to Grantham last week. The petitioners asked that APT not air a controversial series by Texas evangelist David Barton. Barton heads up a group called Wall Builders and produces history documentary films that many decry as pseudo-history.
After Pizzato and Howland were fired in a June AETC meeting, allegations arose that Pizzato resisted pressure from certain AETC board members, notably Dr. Rodney Herring, to air the Barton documentaries. Some worried that broadcasting Barton’s documentaries might endanger APT’s funding. Stephens addressed those allegations when speaking to the press following the commission meeting Tuesday.
“If you’re asking whether particular programming had anything to do with his dismissal, the answer is no,” Stephens said. The five commissioners that voted to fire Pizzato and Howland had their own reasons, Stephens added.“There are seven commissioners. I think it’s fair to say that, generally, everyone wanted a fresh and innovative approach to where the station’s going.”
“I’m just telling you from day one I’ve been saying this has nothing to do with Wall Builders,” Stephens said. “Others keep saying that.”
AETC is currently carrying out national search for a new executive director for APT. In the meantime, Stephens said there would be no “sweeping changes” to APT programming.
Asked if the Barton documentaries would air on APT, Stephens said “No.” He then explained that programming decisions are not the commission’s role. “I mean, we may suggest things to whoever the director is, but that’s really not our role to start ordering things like that,” Stephens said.
Two weeks ago, APT COO Charles Grantham sent an open letter to Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and copied it to every member of the Alabama Legislature. The letter described an organization that grew and became better under the leadership of Pizatto and Howland. It also said staff morale is at an all-time low since Pizatto and Howland were abruptly fired in June. The letter warns Bentley that he must do something to preserve APT.
“Now a shadow is being cast over APT by its own directors,” Grantham wrote in the letter. He said he was concerned that commission members said they wanted to move in another direction when he thought APT was at the top of its game. “It is my belief that the firings were based solely on ideological differences and personality clashes between Mr. Pizzato and some of the commissioners; Mrs. Howland’s firing was just … well, I just don’t know why.”
“I’ve been here 35 years, and morale of the staff is the lowest it’s ever been,” Grantham told Weld last week when asked about the letter. “We have no confidence in our commissioners. They’re taking us down a road we don’t need to be going.”
“We’re five weeks after the firing, and we still don’t know the direction that we need to be going in or what we need to be doing.”
Grantham was especially puzzled by the firing of Howland. He said that AETC goes through two required annual audits by state agencies and another yearly independent audit.
“And there’s never been a finding. Not the first finding [of wrongdoing],” Grantham told Weld last week. “Normally when you let the CFO go that implies that there’s some financial wrongdoing, but there was no financial wrongdoing.”
Howland has been re-hired on a temporary basis to prepare APT’s 2013 budget.
Grantham said the firing of Pizzato “doesn’t seem right to me — the manner in which it was handled.” He said Pizatto was made to empty out his desk and was escorted out of the building. “That’s real demeaning,” Grantham told Weld.
When Weld reached Grantham by phone last week, he said he had not received any response to his July 19 letter. When asked at Tuesday’s meeting if he had received any response, he said no, then quickly said he was told not to speak to press.
“I have been advised by Commission President Ferris Stephens that I cannot utilize my First Amendment rights and speak to the media,” Grantham said.
Stephens said Tuesday that he had been designated as the sole spokesperson to the media. He also said that many state agencies designate a media spokesperson.
“Well, that’s the rule is that you’re not supposed to talk to the media,” Stephens said when pressed on whether he told Grantham not to speak to the press.