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WTVP board chair says rumors of station's imminent dissolution are 'categorically false'

Exterior of the WTVP building
WTVP serves the Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, and Galesburg areas.

The chairman of WTVP's board of directors said the public television station is not considering an imminent shutdown when the board meets for its regular meeting on Tuesday.

The rumor, which began circulating widely on social media over the weekend, suggested the Peoria station's ongoing financial and legal challenges might culminate in a board-led dissolution of the 52-year-old PBS affiliate.

"There will be no discussion about dissolving WTVP. The suggestion is categorically false," said board chairman Andrew Rand in a brief statement emailed Monday morning via interim station manager Julie Sanders.

An agenda posted to WTVP's website late Monday morning showed no items regarding a dissolution. The meetings are public, but there is an executive session planned in which confidential matters outlined by law can be discussed.

The Peoria chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] on Monday publicly called for community action to save the station. New ACLU Peoria chapter president Jessica Thomas listed several reasons for taking a stance, among them the educational and informational value of the station, WTVP's positive impact on vulnerable populations, and its ability to serve as a bridge across the digital divide.

Thomas also called for Rand and his domestic partner, vice chairman Sid Ruckriegel, to step down.

"Given the gravity of the situation and concerns about potential mismanagement, the ACLU Illinois Peoria Chapter is calling for the immediate resignation of the Board Leadership, including the Chair and Vice Chair, for a lack of faith in their ability to safeguard the interests of the community," she said.

Thomas, the former Peoria County auditor, has long butted heads with Rand, the former Peoria County Board chairman. Much of the bad blood stems back to the cuts made to her office in 2021, and the subsequent 2022 referendum to eliminate the elected auditor's office entirely. Thomas unsuccessfully sued to keep her job through the end of her current term.

Thomas told WCBU on Monday that she had heard the rumors, and her goal is to save the station and encourage the resignation of leadership who may have played a role in events leading up to WTVP's current challenges.

Those challenges were made overtly public in the aftermath of former WTVP president Lesley Matuszak's suicide in late September. The station's board of directors in October slashed the budget by 30%, leading to the layoffs of nine employees. The publication of Peoria magazine was indefinitely suspended in November.

Rand has repeatedly blamed the cuts on previous "questionable, unauthorized, or improper" spending, though the exact nature of that spending or how it occurred without the knowledge of the board of directors still isn't clear. The board exercises ultimate control over the station's governance.

The board is an apparently close-knit group. Several board members have served on one or more nonprofit boards together, including the Heart of Illinois United Way, Peoria Hospitals Mobile Medical Services, and the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

They also have political ties, as first noted by the Community Word. Rand, Stephen Morris, Sally Snyder, and former president Matuszak all donated considerable sums to Ruckriegel's unsuccessful 2021 mayoral campaign. Morris, the current Peoria City treasurer, also served as treasurer for both Rand and Ruckriegel's campaigns.

Matuszak took her own life a day after resigning from the station. Former finance and human resources director Lin McLaughlin also has left the station. McLaughlin and Matuszak were former colleagues at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Peoria.

The station's 2019-2020 Equal Employment Opportunity report filed with the Federal Communications Commission says McLaughlin was hired by Matuszak in August 2019 without a job posting, due to "exigent circumstances" caused by an unexpected resignation.

"The payroll, payments to vendors, employee benefits and the annual audit were in jeopardy. The President and CEO contacted a former colleague and asked her to take over this department as soon as possible," the report reads. McLaughlin held the job until earlier this year.

WCBU filed a Freedom of Information Act request last month for the report that WTVP board members filed with the Peoria Police Department, and any other associated materials. That request was denied in its entirety by the police, citing an ongoing investigation. WCBU is appealing that decision to the Illinois Attorney General's Public access counselor.

WTVP's financial issues are drawing attention from law enforcement beyond the Peoria Police Department. The Illinois Attorney General's Office has opened a probe into the alleged misuse of funds, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has said it may refer the case to their inspector general for further investigation as they review WTVP's request for more funding.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation would neither confirm nor deny the agency is investigating the public television station, in keeping with their policies.

WTVP serves the Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, and Galesburg areas. It is not affiliated with WCBU.

Jessica Thomas is a member of the WCBU Community Advisory Board, which plays no role in editorial decisions.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.