Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Thursday stepped squarely into the middle of the ongoing dispute between Southern Oregon University and the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation, calling for a two-month cooling-off period and asking the parties to return to mediation.
The university and the public radio stations' fundraising foundation have been at odds for months, following the release of a state audit that said the JPR Foundation may have taken on too much financial liability with several projects unrelated to the public radio stations. Those projects included restoration of the Holly Theatre and construction of a new JPR headquarters, both in downtown Medford.
Ben Cannon, education policy adviser for Kitzhaber, said by phone Thursday evening that the governor agrees with calls to tone down the debate. He said the governor took some of his cues from statements made by two Southern Oregon legislators Thursday.
"We believe there is a path toward a settlement that everyone can live with," Cannon said.
Cannon said Kitzhaber, who has discussed the situation with George Pernsteiner, the state chancellor of higher education, will appoint "a neutral mediator" to handle any future sessions. The existing contract between SOU and the JPR Foundation will stay intact during the new negotiations, Cannon said.
He also said the threat of lawsuits against individual foundation board members will be dropped.
"We realize that's a real cause for alarm for some or maybe all of the board members," Cannon said. "We are prepared not to go that route."
Foundation board members were preparing for a meeting today in which they would consider a proposed settlement that sources told the Mail Tribune would replace the existing foundation with a new organization. Sources said some members of the board were prepared to resign rather than sign the agreement under threat of personal lawsuits.
Steve Nelson, chairman of the JPR Foundation, said Thursday evening that while there were still questions about the details, he was happy to hear of the governor's offer and would urge board members to go along with the recommendation.
"I would work very hard," Nelson said, "to get members of our board of directors to agree to the terms set forth by the governor, simply because their personal liability has been extinguished."
The governor's action followed on the heels of a Thursday press conference by state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, in which they called for the cooling-off period and said SOU's lawyers should drop the threatened lawsuits.
"It does not need to be a process that divides," Buckley said at the news conference held in front of the Holly Theatre.
The two legislators said they would also like to see a confidentiality clause lifted from the proposed agreement between the university and JPR. Cannon said Kitzhaber agreed with the legislators both on the cooling-off period and that the agreement should be made public.
Buckley urged both parties to be flexible in moving forward.
"No lines in the sand ...," Buckley said. "That's what we're asking."
"What we need now is a time to step back," Bates said, "and let cooler heads prevail."
Prior to the governor's announcement, Di Saunders, OUS director of communications, said the lawyers' letter sent to foundation members was not intended as a threat. Rather, she said, it was a notification that they did not have legal authority to make changes in their bylaws and articles of incorporation or to transfer state assets to new entities.
"Much of that was very concerning to JPR (and) SOU," Saunders said. "We're not aggressively trying to put forward lawsuits and put JPR at risk."
Bates also said Thursday that "the wrong people" have been making decisions in the dispute and that the resolution should come from local groups who could get together in a non-confrontational manner.
"No lawyers," Bates added.
Buckley said he had no issue with the Chancellor's Office requesting an audit.
"The audit is fine," he said. "It raised some questions that need to be answered."
In addition to raising financial concerns, the audit said JPR's plans could conflict with SOU's fundraising efforts and questioned the propriety of Ron Kramer serving as executive director of both JPR and the foundation because of potential conflicts of interest.
"You can't have the same person executing a contract and signing it for different entities," Saunders said.
The university owns 14 of the JPR stations that operate in Southern Oregon and Northern California, while the foundation owns eight of the stations.
Following public release of the audit, SOU President Mary Cullinan terminated Kramer as JPR's executive director, effective June 30. Kramer, who was in a meeting with Nelson and a JPR attorney Thursday evening, said that effectively ends his role as the foundation executive director as well, since the foundation had not independently established the position.
Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler, who was in attendance at Thursday's press conference, told the two legislators that he thought Kramer's position should be restored, at least through any cooling-off period, if one is established.
However, an email sent from Cannon to Nelson later Thursday said Kramer's termination stood.
"Ron Kramer is no longer employed by SOU when his contract expires on June 30," the email read. "He can continue to work for JPR Foundation."
Responding to a question from a representative of a Redding-area public radio station about whether the issue would jeopardize operation of JPR's Cascade Theatre in that city, Buckley said all parties want to avoid that.
"No one wants to threaten what's going on in Redding and no one wants to threaten that here," he said, pointing to the Holly Theatre behind him.
Mark Millner, a volunteer JPR Foundation board member who was in the audience at the press conference, said when he first got notification of the potential lawsuit, he was shocked.
"I looked at my wife and I said, 'Could this really be happening?'" Millner said. He added that the threat of a lawsuit set a potentially dangerous precedent for individuals serving on volunteer boards anywhere in the state.
Saunders said she believes both parties want the same outcome, which is to protect JPR.
"It's an incredible resource, and it has been for decades," she said.
Nelson said the foundation still plans to meet at 3:30 p.m. today at Medford's University Club, 218 W. Sixth St., next door to the Holly. A portion of that meeting will be open for public comments.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mail Tribune editor Bob Hunter also contributed to this story.