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Waves of discontent over Bell Island Radio bingo

Mediator’s report addresses ongoing dispute, outlines allegations and makes recommendations


Published on August 3, 2017

At least one concern was resolved on Bell Island this week with the long-awaited arrival of the new ferry MV Legionnaire. Another dispute involving Bell Island Radio bingo has heated up with the release of a mediator’s report.

©Beth Penney/The Telegram

There are two things in life that, in the least, can tear friendships and partnerships apart and cause people to do things they wouldn’t normally do.

What are they?

I’ve never seen, in my 61 years, this kind of behaviour from people. What astounds me even more than the actions taken to gain control of the radio station and control of its very successful bingo fundraiser is the inaction of people we pleaded with.

Kelly Russell, musician and former radio station manager

Bingo! You’ve got it — money and power.

It’s a bit of a dramatic description, but a mediator’s report into an ugly dispute on Bell Island over control of the local radio station and the proceeds from its lucrative radio bingo outlines what appears to have been a great project from the start, but — once the bingo cards came out — turned into a nasty affair that includes attempted character defamation, a power struggle at the board level and allegations of mismanagement of money.

In a heavily redacted report obtained by The Telegram and written by retired provincial court Judge Robert T. Smith — who was appointed by the Town of Wabana last fall to attempt to mediate the dispute — you can tell the challenges and frustrations Smith encountered while trying to bring all sides together.

At the top of the report Smith writes in bold, “Another Failed Mediation.”

“This mediation failed. Some changes have to be made,” Smith wrote. “One has to trust the ethics of one’s community leaders and hopefully some of the information can be clarified, explained and trust restored. Certainly, some strategies must be redeveloped.”

Bell Island Radio was established in 2011, with its station set up in space offered at the local high school. Local volunteers and students took part in the programming and operation of the station, to great community response. A board was elected to oversee Bell Island Radio.

Smith points out that the location of the radio station was “seen as an opportunity to use this community station, not only as a vehicle of ‘social enterprise’ but as a ‘teaching tool’ within the school to expand the opportunities of the local Bell Island high school students and provide them with opportunities to participate in multi-dimensional aspects of radio broadcasting.”

To enable the station to continue broadcasting — CJBI Radio Bell Island 93.9 FM began broadcasting as a permanent station on Jan. 28, 2013 — a radio bingo was organized to financially support the station through a three-way partnership involving Radio Bell Island, St. Michael’s Regional High School and Tourism Bell Island.

The radio bingo grew to a point where the take was about $200,000 annually.

Smith points out the first two years of operation went very smoothly, but then trouble began.

“The problems seem to begin with the development of a successful radio bingo,” Smith wrote. “Bingo means money and money is a source of power.”

The report notes the bingo became a source of significant funding for the members of the three-way partnership, and thus an alleged power struggle ensued on the Radio Bell Island board of directors that resulted in members supporting a more-controlling role for Tourism Bell Island.

Kelly Russell, a popular Newfoundland musician and storyteller, was one of the driving forces to get the radio station off the ground. He also served as volunteer chairman of the board of Radio Bell Island for four years and as its first paid station manager for one year before quitting due to the ongoing conflict. Tourism Bell Island members, he said, orchestrated a takeover of the station and its bingo by stacking the annual election of board members.

After gaining control of the board and two-thirds of the bingo proceeds, Russell said, the tourism-controlled board then moved to take over the one-third share the school was receiving. The school would then have to apply for funding from Tourism Bell Island for any projects for which it needed funding.

The board also voted to remove the radio station from the school entirely and applied to the town council to have it relocated to the town complex.

“The (annual general meeting) last year was stacked and the station was basically taken over by people with interests in the tourism group. A very obvious takeover,” Russell said.

“I’ve never seen, in my 61 years, this kind of behaviour from people. What astounds me even more than the actions taken to gain control of the radio station and control of its very successful bingo fundraiser is the inaction of people we pleaded with. We went to (Mayor Gary Gosine) and (MHA David Brazil) and provincial government departments well over a year ago and pleaded with them to please keep this radio station in the school where it belongs. It was set up to be a benefit, yes to the community, but to the school and the students. The school was incorporating that radio station into the curriculum.

“This whole thing has caused a huge division in the community.”

Gosine and the town council of Wabana voted in November 2016 to appoint Smith as mediator to try to resolve the dispute after previous attempts failed.

The Telegram attempted to contact Gosine for this article, as well as Tourism Bell Island chairman Henry Crane, but did not receive responses prior to deadline.

In his report, Smith stated that at the heart of the conflict was the control of the radio station, its continued presence and use as an educational tool at the school and the use of money from the radio bingo.

He noted that a financial report shows the bingo raised $221,978.83 during the period of Sept. 1, 2015 to Aug. 31, 2016.

During a number of interviews he conducted throughout the mediation process, Smith said, disturbing pieces of information also came to light that should be further investigated.

“One of the disturbing aspects of this mediation was the allegations that money was not being used according to the rules,” the report states. “The allegation is most concerning and should be further investigated.

“These information pieces suggest that attention should be given to these claims until the full truth is revealed and actions taken upon that full truth.”

Some of the concerns raised to Smith went further than the activities of the Radio Bell Island board of directors and the bingo proceedings, pointing to alleged actions of Tourism Bell Island regarding how some federal-provincial government grants were being used.

Russell points out that one of the most disturbing things to him and his family was the personal attack against his wife, Tonya Kearley, principal of St. Michael’s Regional High School, and a former member of the board of Radio Bell Island.

Russell said his wife was voted off the board and had letters of complaint sent to her employer, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, and provincial government departments and officials that suggested she was unfit for her job. Included with the letters was a photo of his wife when she was out socializing with friends at a local bar.

The letter and photo were even sent to the premier’s office and were circulated on social media.

“This group of individuals not only attacked her on social media, but undertook a letter-writing campaign to discredit her to her employer, to drive us off the island,” Russell said.

“A photograph of my wife taken when she was out to a local club was sent to the premier, to ministers and other administration people in government, with a message ‘look at how this person is behaving and how can she be fit for her job.’”

In his report, Smith called the campaign against Kearley “disgraceful and shows a level of unethical behaviour that should not be tolerated by the Town of Wabana.”

He noted the response from the government in February of this year to the attack on Kearley was that “during the current school year, the (school) district did receive some complaints from parents and citizens of the community of Bell Island. … For each of those complaints, there was no finding of inappropriate conduct on your behalf.

“Given the nature and number of complaints brought forward towards you, it appears to be an organized attack on your professional reputation.”

Among his recommendations in the report, Smith suggests the radio station and the bingo fundraiser remain at the school, and that both be managed by an independent foundation. He said Radio Bell Island board members should be nominated by the foundation. He also suggests a forensic audit be undertaken of the books of Tourism Bell Island and that the town revisit its policy of providing free rent and use of other town assets to Tourism Bell Island.