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 this 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 today.
"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.
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 Friday 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 this 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.
— Ryan Pfeil and Bob Hunter