Wichita staff uprising forces v.p. resignation

By Steve Behrens

Uneasy staff members have returned to their work at Wichita’s KPTS after demanding the firing of the station’s top two executives and prompting the resignation of Vice President Jim Lewis.

But late last week they were still seeking the ouster of President Zoel Parenteau, and the Board of Trustees’ executive committee has declined to let them take their case to the full board. Board leaders said Parenteau already planned to retire when he turns 65 next July 26.

Seventeen of the 24 full-time KPTS staff members petitioned the trustees July 12 to investigate the management of Parenteau and Lewis.

“Zoel Parenteau and Jim Lewis have conspired … to discriminate, harass and generally conduct the management activities in such a manner as to make the working conditions of the staff of KPTS so difficult and unpleasant that a reasonable person in their position would consider resigning,” the petition alleged.

Carl Chance, v.p. and director of production and contract services, supported staff complaints in a separate memo to the board July 25, enclosing a June 24 memo to Parenteau that concluded: “Employees at Channel 8 have seen patterns of relentless nastiness, intimidation and obscenities that violate human rights issues and can seriously damage our image in the community.”

More than 30 former employees and volunteers filed statements with the board alleging that Lewis had intimidated employees or used offensive language. Some employees said that Parenteau backed Lewis and refused to hear complaints about his behavior.

Parenteau and Lewis “frequently made the work environment at Channel 8 very uncomfortable,” wrote Ken Barthelman, former v.p. and director of administration. Staffers “deserve a workplace that is not hostile and not subject to the whims of an arrogant and at times abusive management,” he told the board.

Lewis, who will work at home until his resignation takes effect Aug. 31, released a statement last week explaining that he departed to prevent damage to KPTS. “As to the charges leveled against me,” he wrote, “I simply invite good people everywhere to judge for themselves whether what has been said is consistent with what they know of me.” He declined to comment on the record about charges against him.

Parenteau said Lewis had been “one of the finest program directors in public television,” and had been committed to serving the public interest as expressed by local viewers. He told Current that he wouldn’t respond to allegations and could not discuss personnel matters.

Underwriting salesperson Candy Hoop, a leader of the staff rebellion, also was keeping mum last week after the executive committee directed the staff to “work in a productive and positive way … under the leadership of the president/general manager.” The memo added: “Failure to do so will be considered a breach of your duties and responsibilities.”

After a week of coverage in the local media, both sides expressed fears that the stalemated dispute would move into court.

Albert L. Kamas, an attorney who represents the staffers on a pro bono basis, said the board, by refusing to fire Parenteau and requiring staff to continue working for him, pushes the conflict toward litigation. Kamas contends that the staff sought to oust Parenteau and Lewis without lawsuits, and without going public.

That was the plan when the employees sent their petition to the full 30-member KPTS Board more than three weeks ago. Board Chairperson Norma Tucker, a retired college dean, agreed to a meeting between five executive committee members and full-time employees on Aug. 3. Kamas said staffers described their experiences for three or four hours.

“What I saw … was some hurt feelings and some tears, and a whole lot of love of the station,” recalls Tucker. “We take all accusations that are brought to us very seriously. The most important resource we have are the employees.” She assured the staffers there would be no reprisals against those who spoke up.

The staffers asked the board members to reconsider their request to speak to the entire board and to reply by the afternoon of Aug. 8. When board leaders again refused the meeting with the full board, the staff took their story to local TV stations and the Wichita Eagle. Lewis’s resignation was signed that night and announced the following Monday. Tucker said the station would provide counseling services for distressed employees.

“Unrealistic demands”

Bob Curtwright, who covers broadcasting for the Wichita Eagle, says he has heard staff grumbling about KPTS management for years, and expected it to go public four years ago, when Senior Producer Jeannie Wayne quit.

Wayne, a 17-year staff member who now works for a mental health care management company in Wichita, says she quit in 1992 after a series of run-ins with Lewis. She told the board that Lewis put her in a “no-win situation” by holding her responsible, as senior producer, for any mistakes her entire crew would make, though she was unable to choose or hire the crew. When crew members made mistakes, Lewis would deliver a “tirade,” she wrote to the board. “He was able to wear people down because of his pontification abilities,” she told Current.

“People there are literally set up for failure and Zoel and Jim take great pleasure in that failure,” Wayne wrote to the board.

“I’m sorry I didn’t stand up then,” says David Brewer, who was then broadcast manager and Lewis’s main deputy. “I should have quit then.”

Brewer did quit this April, after 25 years with the station, and it was his departure that set off the staff uprising.

“I saw them doing the same thing to me they had done to Jeannie Wayne,” setting up unrealistic demands for his work, according to Brewer. “I started getting sick, physically ill.” After quitting, he says, he was treated for depression, but has recovered and wants his job back. While working for Lewis, Brewer didn’t confront his boss. “I’m not a confrontation-type person,” he observes. “I would just take it.”

Candy Hoop, by all accounts, does not just take it. Brewer, Wayne and Chance said that Lewis had vehemently criticized her performance. As an example of Lewis’s rebukes, Chance said in a memo to Parenteau that Lewis told Hoop: “Any half-wit off the street could have done a better job than you to interpret policies and guidelines.”

In describing Hoop’s underwriting sales techniques, Brewer alleges, Lewis would use the phrase, “raising her skirts and saying, ‘Come on, sailor!’” Employees gave other examples of Lewis using crude language offensive to women.

Outbursts often occurred during live production of pledge breaks, when Lewis criticized staff for failing to meet standards, according to employees and volunteers.

Chance said in his memo to the trustees that Lewis’s conduct “appalled” him and that he had to inform Parenteau. But when Chance met with Parenteau June 20, the g.m. the importance of his concerns, according to Chance.

Parenteau told Current that Chance’s memos shocked him and that he was “surprised and amazed that it could be happening without my knowledge.”

Beth Stuart, former managing editor of the station program guide, wrote to the board: “I have always felt that if these two men were suddenly not there anymore, there would be a line of former employees who love public television wrapped around the building, trying to get in and become involved with the station again.”

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