The saga over RePAC continues. The board of selectmen, at its January 30th meeting, voted to terminate its contract with Rehoboth Public Access Corporation for cable access programming and services. Now the town is battling the public access provider in the courts.
On March 27, town counsel was in Taunton Superior Court for a hearing involving RePAC and its alleged failure to produce all the broadcasting equipment and financial records that the court and town requested.
Previously, RePAC Vice-Chairman Ed Schagrin allegedly removed cameras, microphones and other equipment from the senior center, town hall, Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School and the RePAC studio on Anawan Street.
After selectmen decided to terminate the contract, RePAC was given several deadlines to return missing equipment and provide a full accounting of the corporation's assets. The most recent deadline, set by the court, was February 24.
RePAC returned some of the equipment, but not all of it, before the deadline. According to Selectmen Chairman Mike Costello, at the time about 30 percent of the equipment was still unaccounted for.
Costello said some of the paperwork had been received, but there were some documents that were also still missing.
Selectmen sought a contempt order against RePAC.
After three hours of testimony from both sides on March 27, the judge ordered, among other things, according to Costello, that RePAC provide, within 10 days, a complete inventory of the equipment that they feel should stay in RePAC's possession.
Selectmen also gave the court an inventory of equipment that the town feels is still missing.
"We feel there is still quite a bit of equipment in their possession, but it's not going to prevent us from continuing to broadcast the three public access channels," said Costello.
The town was able to obtain one of the pieces of equipment, valued at more than $20,000, which was sent to a manufacturer for repair. A letter will be sent to the manufacturer instructing the company to return the equipment to the town.
"That's a $20,000 piece of equipment that is the brains for running the public access channels and the information scroll," Costello said.
"We have a temporary scroll running on Ch. 98 now, but as soon as we get that equipment back, we'll be able to operate successfully so people at home can get all the information and quality they deserve," Costello added.
Previously, the schedule of government meetings was aired on Ch. 9, school information scrolled on Ch. 15 and the programming schedule aired on Ch. 98.
The judge did not rule on the contempt order, according to Costello. She reportedly wanted to wait to make a decision until after receiving the equipment inventory.
During the court hearing, attorneys for the town also requested additional financial records from RePAC. According to Costello, RePAC's representatives said that they had provided all the financial records they had and that some documents may be missing.
Representatives of RePAC declined to comment on this article.
"We're working with the Department of Revenue to obtain copies of their tax records and we are planning to conduct a forensic audit," Costello said.
Costello said the judge also requested that RePAC provide the financial information within 10 days.
Another issue that was deliberated at the hearing was unpaid bills for various equipment and payroll.
"When we seized their assets, they are stating that there were unpaid bills that they feel it is the town's responsibility to pay," Costello said.
The judge did not rule on the bills, but took the matter under advisement, says Costello.
The cost to the town for these legal proceedings is significant. According to Costello, the town has already spent approximately $35,000, but the town is working to have that recouped through public access funds.
Meanwhile, the Cable Advisory Committee has been running the public access stations since RePAC's contract was terminated. Last month selectmen also authorized hiring temporary part-time workers to assist in running cameras and performing other duties to assist with local access broadcasting.
"I believe they're doing an unbelievable job. They're just fantastic. If it weren't for Derek Rousseau and other members stepping up with computer and technical knowledge, we would never have been able to get back up and running," Costello said.
"It would have cost the town thousands of dollars to bring a company in from the outside to re-establish public access and it cost us no money at all. I applaud them," Costello added.
Costello says that now most of the board meetings are being televised live, which has not happened in quite some time, other than for selectmen's meetings.
Problems with RePAC have been reported for years. The most recent chapter started last year when the board of selectmen repeatedly asked RePAC's board to meet with them to discuss residents' complaints. The complaints included not airing town board meetings live, editing and distorting of programming and an alleged political agenda.
In August of last year, selectmen gave RePAC 60 days to address alleged violations of its contract with the town.
"We actually gave them a long time to try and cure the breaches, but they never came in to do that, so we had no alternative but to end the contract," Costello said.
Selectmen also voted to amend the town's cable TV renewal license with Comcast so that funds for government programming and operational payments would be channeled through the town instead of being paid directly to RePAC.
RePAC also has filed a lawsuit against the town, Costello and the town's legal counsel Koppelman and Paige.
Schagrin was arraigned on charges of receiving stolen property worth more than $250, which is a felony, according to Rehoboth Police. He is due back in court in early April.
At press time, a date for RePAC's next hearing had not yet been set.