Jefferson Public Radio Executive Director Ron Kramer said Saturday that he plans to retire June 30 rather than risk legal liability during a contentious mediation process between the JPR Foundation and Southern Oregon University.
Kramer made his plans known in an email sent to the Mail Tribune and others on Saturday.
Kramer's decision comes a day after the JPR Foundation agreed to re-enter mediation with SOU over how the radio station and its fundraising wing will be run.
The sides took a cue from Gov. John Kitzhaber, who waded into the debate by calling for a 90-day "cooling off" period that could give both a chance to come to an amicable agreement without jeopardizing the future of JPR's presence in Southern Oregon and Northern California
"Since any participation on my part in Foundation affairs could expose me to suit at this point, I will have no role in assisting the mediation effort, which is intended to produce some resulting structural change by the end of the 90 day period," Kramer wrote.
The specter of costly lawsuits have hung over the process after SOU's lawyers sent a letter to the Foundation's board members threatening possible "expensive" legal liability in the dispute over ownership and control of the radio stations.
SOU backed off these statements Friday during a meeting of the Foundation board. The university said it would exclude the board from all potential lawsuits during the ongoing mediation process.
However, this exclusion did not apply to Kramer, whose contract is scheduled for termination on June 30.
"Until June 30, I am a university employee working within the scope of my assigned responsibilities ...," Kramer wrote. "On July 1, as a private citizen I would potentially be subject to the same legal harassment with which the entire Foundation board has been threatened for months ..."
Steve Nelson, JFR Foundation board president, said Kramer's exit is a potentially devastating blow to the organization.
"It is incredible sad that a person of his talents is shown the door in this manner," Nelson said. "We are now without the person who has been the leader for 38 years. What is the mechanism by which we replace him? Who will chart the day-to-day, month-to-month course? Who will deal with the budgets going forward?"
Nelson said the Foundation has sought opinions from broadcast licensing experts in Washington D.C. as they enter mediation.
The Foundation worries that the station could possible lose several broadcast licenses if they are shifted to a newly created entity outlined in the first settlement, which was publicly announced Friday evening.
The details of this settlement could change with the new round of talks, but the issue of licensing remains a hot topic, Nelson said.
"Ron knows a lot about licensing, but he won't be there for us during the mediation," Nelson said. "That's why we sought council in Washington D.C."
Kramer's fate was discussed at Friday's meeting. The board seemed resigned to let him walk away after June 30, Nelson said.
It is unclear whether Kramer will remain involved in the ongoing project to reopen the Holly Theatre in downtown Medford, Nelson said.
Kramer could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The dispute began with an audit sought by the Oregon University System suggested that the foundation's non-radio projects, including restoration of the Holly Theatre and construction of new headquarters in Medford, could overextend JPR financially.
This audit led to a mediation session earlier this month and a proposed settlement agreement.
But members of the foundation were unhappy with the agreement and at least some considered resigning rather than sign the document under threat of personal lawsuits from the university.
Tensions eased Thursday when Kitzhaber suggested the university system should reopen mediation talks with the foundation board. His education policy adviser, Ben Cannon, also said the governor had instructed the Chancellor's Office to drop the threat of lawsuits.
The OUS audit called for greater separation between JPR's fundraising foundation and its radio operations and said the role of Kramer, who serves as executive director of both JPR and its foundation, was a potential conflict of interest.
The mediated agreement would have separated the current JPR Foundation from Jefferson Public Radio and created a new nonprofit to carry on the work of JPR's 22 radio stations, 14 of which are owned by SOU and eight of which are owned by the foundation.
The settlement addressed the issues raised by the audit by consolidating the radio operations and fundraising for the stations into one nonprofit that would have been called the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation.
The current JPR Foundation and SOU would have then transferred their radio stations and Federal Communications Commission licenses (subject to FCC approval) to the new nonprofit by June 30, 2013. The transfer would have included trademarks, cash and investments held for the benefit of JPR, all contracts and agreements and all property, plant and equipment related to JPR operations.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.