On the cover North Coast Journal


November 16, 2006
Heading: Clash over Reggae, a SoHum civil war, 24 years in the making, aereal photo of Reggae on the River

On the Cover: Back of the stage at Reggae on the River, 2006. Photo by Bob Doran
Above: Reggae 2006 at Dimmick Ranch. Photo by Kim Sallaway.

MOST OF THE 15,000 OR SO PEOPLE ATTENDING THIS SUMMER'S REGGAE ON THE RIVER NEVER SAW THE BANNER, although many had seen it in the past. For years, the backdrop for the festival stage included a large piece of canvas with the word "Unity" scrawled in black over splashes of red, green and gold. It was retired a few Reggaes back, but this year someone pulled it out of mothballs and mounted it on the back of the stage, perhaps as a means to connect the festival's new location with its deep roots. If there was a catchword for the festival over the years, unity was it.

As the festival approaches it's 24th year, many in southern Humboldt are wondering what happened to the spirit of unity that once drove Reggae. In recent weeks the community has been torn apart by the revelation that the Mateel Community Center, the nonprofit organization that ostensibly runs Reggae, is in "a severe financial crisis" due to a shortfall in revenue from the festival over the course of two years.

photo of Morgan Heritage and the Unity signA letter sent out by the Mateel board of directors and its executive director, Taunya Stapp, explained that this year the event's production company, People Productions, had projected a net income from Reggae of $250,000, then on Oct. 21, the board had been told that "perhaps there would be a profit of $16,000."

This is a major blow for the Mateel, since the festival typically provides the bulk of the organization's operating budget. The board asked for community input, in particular at the Mateel's upcoming annual meeting, set for this Friday, Nov. 17.

Right: Morgan Heritage performing in front of the Unity sign at Reggae 2001. Photo by Bob Doran.

While some saw the letter as a cry for help, others took it as a slap in the face to longtime Reggae producers People Productions. Battle lines were drawn, and counter-accusations showed up on the letter to the editor pages of the local papers from People Productions' CEO Carol Bruno and her supporters and staff.

The dispute heated up on "Thank Jah, It's Friday," a morning talk radio show hosted by former People Productions partner Paul "P.B." Bassis.

Responding to a caller, Bassis argued, "What is so disturbing about Taunya Stapp's finger-pointing at People Productions for the Mateel's unbelievable account of financial woes -- this organization, and I will only speak to what I factually know -- this organization received in proceeds from Reggae on the River in a 10-year period of time, in the neighborhood of $2.25 million. How that organization possibly squandered that much money to run a community center in Redway is astounding. It can only point to mismanagement of the organization."

Speaking directly to Stapp (who was not, in fact, listening to the show) Bassis said she should be ashamed, concluding, "You came to this community two years ago to take the job of director of the Mateel, and if you take us for fools and dumb-asses, you are absolutely wrong."

The story made waves throughout southern Humboldt, old wounds reopened, longstanding resentments were stirred. This reporter received a call out of the blue from "a concerned Mateel member" who wanted to be sure the Journal would have someone at the coming meeting.

photo of Joani Rose and Recycled YouthAsked about her concerns, she said she'd rather not give her name or speak on the record and handed the phone to Hoy Kersh, a Whitethorn resident who has been an M.C. at Reggae off and on for years.

"It's all about the money," said Kersh bluntly. She hopes that "enough people show up at the meeting that we could force Carol and P.B. to step down, somehow break that contract.

"They're so arrogant that they're not going to listen to anything we say. I hope we can bust them on fraud, that we can show that they lied and cheated and stole our money. Then the community could take Reggae back, maybe could start off with a little smaller show and do it ourselves."

It's clear that unity -- at the very least, between the Mateel and People Productions -- has gone out the window. How did this come to pass, particularly given the fact that Carol Bruno was a key figure in building the Mateel? What will this rift mean for the Mateel Community Center and Reggae on the River, two crucial Humboldt County institutions? For any sort of understanding a look backwards is required.

Above: Joani Rose, director of Recycled Youth, one of the programs at the Mateel. Photo by Bob Doran.

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As the '60s became the '70s, hippies who'd lived in San Francisco's fabled Haight/Ashbury District and other parts of the country took to the hills, heading back to the land. A fair number landed in the southern part of Humboldt County, where a 40-acre parcel could be had for a low down payment, mainly because no one else wanted what was seen as useless land. As they grew in numbers, a counterculture enclave developed, and with it a sense of community.

photo of the Mateel CenterAt a Community Congress held in the Garberville Fireman's Hall in the winter of 1978, the late Jim Deerhawk read a poem in which he gave an identity to that community. Merging the names of southern Humboldt's two rivers, the Eel and the Mattole, he declared that the bioregion would henceforth be known as Mateel. The new name was attached to the community center the back-to-the-landers established in the Fireman's Hall.

In addition to its role as a gathering place, the Mateel Community Center was used as a dancehall and performance space for groups like the First Feet Dancers. The Winter Arts Fair was established as an annual event, one where you could buy tie-dyed T-shirts, hand-woven shawls or cups and bowls made by local potters like John and Carol Bruno.

Then in 1983, tragedy struck. An arsonist set the Mateel and several other buildings in Garberville ablaze and the firehall burned to the ground. It was at that point that the mythic story of Reggae on the River began.

Right: Mateel Community Center. Photo by Bob Doran.

Carol Bruno has told the tale many times; she told it again when the Journal met with her in the offices of People Productions on Rusk Lane in Redway, a stone's throw away from the Mateel Community Center, a beautiful hall that's known in SoHum as "the house that Reggae built."

"We had an insurance policy," Bruno began, "but we didn't have enough money to rebuild, and the [firehall] location wasn't a spot where the building could be large enough for a boogie place."

Bruno and her friend Shelby proposed putting on a music festival featuring reggae music to raise funds to rebuild. They called it Reggae on the River since it took place on land along the Eel River not far from the Mendocino border, a place called French's Camp owned by the Arthur family.

"The first year it lost money, and I was going to get sued by the community," Bruno recalled. "The second year I think we made $400 or $600. Then the third year I think it made $1,800, and then it just went up from there. But every year it worked we'd be, 'Yeah, it made money!'"

It took a five-year search to find just the right place to rebuild the center. "Enter Evelyn Rusk, who lives right over there today," said Bruno, gesturing toward the window. "She and her husband owned the property that's now the home of the Mateel."

Bruno recalled the "leap of faith" required in committing to buy the property and build on it. "It was amazing that it happened. Reggae kept making more and more money each year and somehow we were able to accomplish it. It wasn't without struggle. We didn't have much money at all. For quite a few years when we did the festival everyone worked for free, then everybody worked for really cheap wages. I was paid $6 an hour for a lot of years."

As the years passed the hall grew, and with it the festival. In 1991 (the first year this reporter attended) it expanded from a one-day boogie to a two-day campover. By that time it was drawing bands and reggae fans from around the world -- and becoming a big business, one that required a year-round commitment. Somewhere along the line, with assistance from local lawyer Les Scher, Bruno licensed the name, Reggae on the River, for the Mateel. "So it would always be protected," as she put it.

photo of Carol BrunoBruno had a big job: She ran the festival -- "with help from a whole lot of people," as she is quick to point out -- and she also ran the Mateel.

"I was never 'executive director,' I was director," she emphasized, differentiating her past role from the Mateel's current structure. "We considered it more of a team. I was the staff person responsible for making sure that things happened. We had a hall manager, Richard Fisher. Then when he left for Hawaii, P.B. [Paul Bassis] came on as hall manager."

In between Reggaes, Bruno and Bassis produced an assortment of concerts at the Mateel. "We had to to keep the cash flow going," Bruno noted.

Right: Carol Bruno of People Productions. Photo by Bob Doran.

Bruno and Bassis were in positions of power, and with that power came challenges, some merely jealousy and second-guessing, but also serious questioning about the role the Mateel and Reggae played in the community. The nonprofit Bruno headed was bringing in some serious cash through Reggae, and she and Bassis were paid employees who no longer received $6 an hour.

A survey circulated in the mid-'90s asked, "what the community wanted the Mateel to be," as Bruno put it. "The community said they didn't want it to be a production company -- they wanted it to be a venue where events could be held. That's when we left and formed our own company."

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Bruno and Bassis formed People Productions as a limited liability partnership in 1994. "We used our own capital to produce events, and contracted to produce Reggae on the River," said Bruno. "The Mateel [became] the community center that the community had requested."

While Bruno had been in charge of producing Reggae since the beginning, the name, Reggae on the River, and the festival itself belonged to the Mateel, not to her. People Productions used its own money to finance other events, reaping profits or losses, but Reggae was still financed by the Mateel, and profits went to the community center.

Kathryn Lobato Manspeaker was hired in 1995 as the Mateel's executive director, filling the leadership vacuum. She'd lived in SoHum since the early '70s, had been a Mateel supporter since the Fireman's Hall days and brought with her a long history working with local nonprofits.

"When I came on as executive director the community center had been in the new location for a few years," said Lobato in a call from her Garberville home. "The external part of the Mateel was finished, work was need on the interior. There was still a sizable mortgage on the building and there was a shoebox full of bills that were unpaid. We had debt. Reggae wasn't making that much money. I think the year I came in it made under $100,000 profit. We were really scraping by."

People Productions had just gone through its first year producing Reggae and it was time to work out a new contract. It was not easy, initially because the contractor/employee relationship was brand new, but it never got easier.

"Working out that relationship has always been problematic. I think at the core of it, it's because, on paper, Reggae on the River belongs to the community center, every aspect of it. They hold the trademark, they own all the contracts, they sign all the permits with agencies, they hold the lease with the landowner -- Photo of Taunya Stappbut, because Carol was one of the founders, she feels a proprietary interest in Reggae.

"Now, if Reggae on the River was a for-profit business, Carol would be an owner. She would have equity, she would have a retirement coming, she would have all kinds of things that she doesn't have, that she feels entitled to. And a lot of people feel she should have those things. That is the core issue, and it's been almost impossible to deal with."

Left: Mateel Community Center Executive Director Taunya Stapp. Photo by Bob Doran.

By all accounts, Lobato's tenure as Mateel E.D. was productive. She set about fulfilling the community vision of a shift to more of a community center and less of a boogie hall. Heading into the turn of the century, she brought in grant funding from the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and foundations to start up youth programs and further assess the community's desire for the organization. Even Bruno praised her leadership -- "even though we had our differences."

Those differences came to the forefront periodically, when the time came to renew the Reggae on the River contract. Though the details of negotiations are not available to the public, most people agree that they have long been fraught with difficulties.

After a particularly bitter contract battle in 2002, Lobato decided, "it was time for me to do something else," and left her position. Three members of the Mateel board, including the board president, refused to sign the 2002 contract, stating: "We have significant objections. We do not believe this contract adequately protects the Mateel."

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The search for another executive director resulted in the hiring of Cindy Matheson, an experienced nonprofit administrator from Boston who was clearly out of her element, and lasted all of seven months on the job before resigning.

At that point the Mateel board decided to try a management team with three staffers running the organization together. Retired income tax specialist Rob Stern was recruited to fill an open seat on the board around the time the tri-management team was put in place. When it became clear that that model was not workable, the decision was made to find a new executive director.

"I think the board was unanimous in the belief that we needed a strong administrator," said Stern in a call from his home in Redway. "We wanted somebody with a community background with financial and management expertise."

Taunya Stapp fit the bill. "We knew that a lot of her responsibility was going to be administering the contract with People Productions for Reggae on the River. It's the biggest financial deal the Mateel has going -- somebody has to be watching the store for our side. But she was also in charge of diversifying our funding base and I think she did a good job at that."

photo of Entrance to Reggae 2006When Stapp was hired at the end of 2004, she set straight to work trying to figure out what was going on with Mateel finances, basically by studying the books. A month and a half later she met with the board.

Left: Entrance to Reggae 2006 at Dimmick Ranch. Photo by Bob Doran.

As she explained in an interview in her office in the house next door to the Mateel, "My analysis was, 'You've got a serious problem because you have a one-income stream of revenues that could be jeopardized.' At that point the lease [for French's Camp] was still fine, and they didn't see that anything was going to happen to Reggae. I told them, 'You need to diversify as fast as you can; you need to look at your core competencies and at what this community needs. The Mateel needed a long-term plan, a capital assets plan and an update of the strategic plan.' The board debated it and came back to say they agreed."

That was early 2005. At that point, Reggae business was taking some unexpected twists. For one thing, People Productions founder Paul Bassis had announced in December 2004 that he was leaving to start his own booking, promotion and artist management business, Infinite Entertainment.

Then the Arthur family, owners of French's Camp, the site where Reggae has been held since the beginning, made it known that they were not happy with their lease agreement with the Mateel. While family matriarch Pat Arthur claimed she wanted things "to be quieter," her son, Mark, let on that, "We as a family want to develop the west side of the river and that wasn't permitted. Personally, I would like to see more events [at French's Camp]. Maybe not just one big event; there could be four weekends, maybe a little hip-hop one weekend, a little old school another, who knows what else."

With the French's Camp lease due to expire in September 2005, Stapp and her staff began looking for a new site for Reggae, while, said Stapp, "trying to figure out why the lease went bad. My time was going into dealing with the search and the Mateel's resources were going into that. Then, suddenly, in June, Tom Dimmick pops up and says,' Hey, what about my property?'"

The Dimmick Ranch, located just upriver from French's Camp, seemed like a dream come true. "It made sense. It's a beautiful place; it's located well. It seemed serendipitous," said Stapp.

"At that point we were into legal negotiations, and not only about the lease. Carol Bruno approached the board and said, 'I may have a year left on my other contract, but I'm not going to do this [work on the move] unless you renegotiate my contract.'"

Paul Bassis had reentered the picture, serving as negotiator for Dimmick. Stapp found herself simultaneously overseeing negotiations for the lease with Dimmick while negotiating a new contract with Bruno to operate the festival, one that included an $180,000 fee for People Productions. (The fee, which goes to Bruno and does not include People Production staff work for Reggae, went up to $185,000 in 2006.)

When Reggae 2005 came and went, net proceeds proved to be less than expected. As Bruno explained, "It was pretty much across the board, everything cost more. That was mostly inflation hitting Reggae on the River. Everything cost more. Every single thing went up. Except ticket prices."

According to Stapp, the Mateel made a net profit of only $103,000. "We were anticipating something more like $240,000," she said. "That was what we had budgeted. And that wasn't the move year -- this was the last year at the old site."

Regarding Bruno's explanation of the shortfall, Stapp said, "It sounded a lot like what we've been told about this year: high expenses, unexpected expenses. You know, 'Whoops.' The other thing they said was, 'We've always expected Reggae monies are eventually going to decline, and the Mateel shouldn't have counted on the money.'

photo of Crowd at Reggae"We didn't find out [about the 2005 shortfall] until September or October. By that time we had run our budget on our anticipated revenue projection, so we had to go to our reserves to cover."

While the shortfall was a hard hit, things got worse. As Stern pointed out, you could say that that $103,000 profit was really no profit at all. "The Mateel had to spend around $100,000 out of its coffers to take the equipment and supplies off of the Arthur property, since our lease with them had expired," he said.

Right: Crowd at Reggae 2006. Photo by Bob Doran.

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Reiterating his support for Stapp's role in negotiations, Stern noted, "One of the changes in the [most recent] contract has to do with our need to have better accounting and budget controls. A lot of accounting rules in the contract were basically not followed.

"They [People Productions] keep saying a budget is not a promise. But when the board approved the budget last spring, it showed a $288,000 profit. I grilled them, asked, 'How certain are you? You have this new permit, are you asking for enough tickets?' They asked that we rely on their professional expertise to be able to produce. Then in July we got a budget update that raised [the expected profit] to $309,000, that [took us] straight into Reggae on the River."

"We revised the budget at the end of July," said Bruno. "We added some bars and crafted different ways to make more money for the festival."

As People Productions Chief Financial Officer Suzie Mattila put it, at that point the projections were "optimistic." That was just before the time Mattila calls "the vortex," as festival weekend arrives and with it a series of financial surprises.

Bruno mentioned a few: an RV that someone smashed into a tree, new demands from county inspectors for the wastewater system and the backstage kitchen, more security for Piercy, 50 cars that had to be towed, a larger volume of trash than anticipated, requiring additional dumpsters and larger payroll for the recycling crew.

"I've asked friends who are promoters in the city, 'Is it just us doing this wrong? Is there a way to accurately predict [expenses]? You know what the response was? 'Welcome to the music business.'"

As Mattila described it, the weekend of the festival is always a blur of money in and money out, bills paid onsite and cash income from T-shirt sales, the beer booth, camping, etc., deposited in the bank.

"I've got all that information, but it isn't collated and it isn't in the computer, so I'm thinking maybe we did well enough to compensate for some of the overages. Who knows? About a month later I find out."

According to Bruno at the beginning of September 2006, "We notified them that it looks like the bottom line will not hold. We told them, 'We need to have a meeting,' but they were doing the Hoedown [a Mateel-produced concert at Benbow Lake], so they couldn't meet with us until Sept. 26."

"We never heard another word about how all these costs were piling up," said Stern. "It wasn't until a month after Reggae that we started getting inklings. When we got word that it was down to $16,000, that was pretty drastic.

"This was a little hippie festival that grew way, way big, into a $3 million affair. And when I hear from Suzie Mattila that there's this huge 'vortex' starting in July and she don't know what's happening until she puts everything in the computer, that makes me nervous."

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Mattila says she's looking at this as her last Reggae as People Productions CFO -- maybe. "Let's just say I'm retiring if I have to work with the Mateel again," she concluded. "If I don't have to work with them, I might stick around."

"And I think that pretty much goes for the entire staff here," said Bruno.

She was not sure exactly what will happen at Friday's meeting, or even whether she'll be presenting her usual report on the festival. "We haven't had any communication from them."

Bruno doesn't like to think about the potential of the Mateel closing its doors for lack of funds. "That would be a real drag. We all love the Mateel. Gosh, you're talking to one of the founders."

What happened to the spirit of unity? What does the word unity mean at this point? Bruno is quiet for a long time thinking. "I think unity still exists," she began, then Mattila interjected saying, "My basic feeling is that somebody from out of our community came in here, had a board that didn't know what they were supposed to do, came in like gangbusters saying People Productions had to be brought under control. She convinced them they would be audited and lose their homes if they didn't do what she told them they needed to do. That's certainly not our style. The whole board is convinced that we're not doing it the right way and that their director knows how it should be done."

"And," said Bruno, "they feel no need to communicate with us. It's been a history of obstructionism, of bad communication, of one drama after another."

Another People staffer, Katy Stern, sticks her head in the door. "How would you classify it, Katy?" asks Bruno.

"Disrespectful," says Stern.

"Unity requires respect," says Bruno. "They don't trust us."

If the Mateel and People Productions can't come to agreement to work together, what happens to Reggae? "I don't know what the Mateel's plans are," said Bruno. "They don't talk to us."

By chance, Paul Bassis was visiting People Productions' office when the Journal spoke with the staff there. He offered his own solution to the crisis: The immediate resignation of the Mateel's executive director and the entire board of directors, a clean slate.

"My disappointment with the way the Mateel has been managed has gone on for quite some time," he said later. "There are a lot of people who have worked long and hard on Reggae on the River who are very upset with this board of directors and its executive director, who seems to be the tail that's wagging the dog."

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Down the lane at the Mateel, Stapp is sticking to her guns. "The money that went into this hall, the money that went into French's Camp, the money that went into Tom Dimmick's site, it all came from the community. The fact is, all of this is central to this community. Reggae on the River is huge. I think all options need to be examined.

"To me, this is not about People Productions and the Mateel, this is about the sustainability of the Mateel and what people want from it for the future. With planning we can avoid this sort of crisis. Unfortunately, because of all the politics and the social nature around this -- and the nature of the contractual limitations -- we have to do this battle first."

Could the Mateel put on Reggae without Bruno and People Productions? No one really wants it to come to that, but, said Mateel board member Stern, "I can't believe they're the only company in the world that can do it. They do have a lot of support in the community. A lot of people love Carol Bruno and P.B. and all the things that have been done over the years. The Mateel would find itself in a difficult place if that relationship would just end. That doesn't mean we haven't discussed what might happen if they no longer would produce [the festival].

"The Mateel has never done anything to try and terminate the contract. The Mateel doesn't have a plan to terminate the contract. The only suggestions of a termination of the contract have come from Carol Bruno."

photo of ID Tag, Reggae on the River Old School with Unity emblemIs Stapp considering resigning? She laughs at the question and says no. "If the entire community says, 'Taunya we want you to go,' I'll say bye. You know they've taken out three administrations here. It's got to stop somewhere. I'm not here because it's fun, and I can tell you I'm not here for the money. I get $32,000 a year for this job. I have a second job just to survive.

"The thing is, the last thing the Mateel Community Center needs is another executive director being run out on a rail. If they have legitimate concerns, bring 'em. I can answer every one of their questions. This is a public organization. I'm accountable to the public and the members.

"This hasn't happened overnight. This problem is 20 years in the making. We need to have the community tell us what they expect of the Mateel Community Center's largest asset. What kind of return? How do you want us to use this? We can't do this by ourselves anymore. We need the public's input. We need to resolve this. We need to do the work."

What happens next? Only time will tell. A couple of alternatives to the current situation have been offered: licensing the Reggae on the River name to Bruno, or selling it to her outright. Bruno said she'd consider either. Stapp is waiting for direction from the Mateel membership.

One thing for sure, the meeting at the Mateel Friday at 5:30 will be contentious. According to the press release from the Mateel, the public is invited to stick around "after the meeting wraps up at 8 p.m. for good times and great music at the end of the year Community Jam party." It's hard to say if the spirit of unity will prevail at the meeting. Maybe it would help if everyone could boogie together after the battle is over.

Above: Tag photo by Kim Sallaway.

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