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Mayors call for a halt to JPR vs. SOU

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler and others are calling for a stand-down in a high-stakes showdown between Southern Oregon University and the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation.

"I would like to see a 60-day cooling-off period," Wheeler said. "I'm really concerned about this spinning out of control."

Wheeler and Ashland Mayor John Stromberg both have expressed hope the dispute over JPR's assets can be defused before irreparable damage is done to the vast network of public radio stations, as well as other projects, such as the Holly Theatre, that would improve downtown Medford.

An audit sought by the Oregon University System suggested that the foundation's nonradio projects, including restoration of the Holly and construction of new headquarters in Medford, could overextend JPR financially. It also said JPR and its foundation should have separate executive directors.

The audit led to a mediation session earlier this month and a proposed settlement agreement that would separate the JPR Foundation from the radio stations, according to documents obtained by the Mail Tribune.

The proposed agreement between the foundation and SOU over leadership and control of Jefferson Public Radio will be discussed at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Medford's University Club, 218 W. Sixth St., next to the Holly Theatre. A portion of the meeting will be open for public comments.

Mary Cullinan, president of SOU, would sign the settlement agreement for the university.

Multiple sources have told the Mail Tribune that board members may resign rather than approve the settlement agreement under the threat of lawsuits that would be aimed at them individually by SOU.

"I would like everyone to call off the lawsuit threats," Wheeler said. "To me, it is sort of a scorched-earth policy unfolding for the JPR board. It puts them in a very difficult position."

Wheeler said he views the 40-year history of JPR as a "visionary process" that created a radio network stretching from Mendocino, Calif., to Eugene, and Lakeview to the Pacific Ocean.

"JPR is a cultural asset to the whole valley," he said. "It's a rarity in the U.S."

But JPR's entrepreneurial spirit has been called into question by the OUS audit, which called for greater separation between JPR's fundraising foundation and its radio operations.

The audit triggered debate among JPR officials and led to Cullinan terminating Ron Kramer, executive director of the radio stations, as of June 30. He remains executive director of the foundation.

Di Saunders, spokeswoman for the Oregon University System, said that while OUS had concerns about the JPR operations, there has been no suggestion of financial improprieties.

"Never — that was not an issue," she said.

One of the main issues, she said, is that Kramer was executive director of both JPR and the foundation, which created accounting questions over the dual roles.

Saunders said she didn't know whether the university system would review other situations in which foundation administrators also work for their respective universities.

Sylvia Kelley, development director for Southern Oregon University, is executive director of the SOU Foundation, which is a separate nonprofit.

"Even though it's not an ideal situation, there are checks and balances," Saunders said.

She said the audit found the radio station used one type of accounting program operated by the university system, while the foundation used a different system. "They (the systems) weren't talking to each other," she said.

Another issue is the high debt ratio that JPR Foundation undertook with the Holly and Jefferson Square, she said.

JPR officials have argued that the debt isn't as large as the university projected because JPR was operating on a pay-as-you-go formula to complete the two projects. The foundation did borrow $500,000 to purchase the Holly building.

The audit also said finding funding for the Medford projects could prove to be competition for SOU's own fundraising efforts. JPR officials say that most of the fundraising would be through tax credits and grants, with about $2 million raised through direct donations.

Wheeler said he doesn't believe JPR's fundraising would threaten SOU.

"I'm not sure the same people who would donate to the Holly would also donate to the SOU Foundation," he said.

Wheeler said the Holly and JPR's proposed new headquarters at Jefferson Square on 10th Street are critical components in the revitalization of downtown Medford.

Beyond the immediate problems for JPR, Wheeler said, the dispute could have wider repercussions that could also harm SOU.

Wheeler said he's heard that a major donor from Klamath Falls has decided to withdraw a contribution to the SOU Foundation as a result of the dispute.

"It's really going to poison the well at this point," he said.

Stromberg said he hopes that the integrity of the radio stations is preserved and the Holly and Jefferson projects proceed.

"We want to make sure JPR comes out really, truly whole," Stromberg said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.