JOLIET – Dick Schuster pulled open the drawer of a steel cabinet, surprising himself at some of the local history preserved on video by JCTV during the past three decades.
“We never throw a tape away,” he said, as he looked at one video titled “Providence Fashion Show – 1993.”
Also in the files was then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama at a Lockport town hall meeting in 2005 and a visit to Joliet by then-Vice President George Bush in 1988.
Schuster, president of Joliet Community Television, has taped hundreds of community events since joining the organization in 1984.
But it’s what he wasn’t willing to tape last month that put him in the spotlight for a few days.
He opted not to film a March 12 mayoral debate at Cantigny VFW Hall after learning Mayor Tom Giarrante was not participating; the other two candidates in the race, Andy Mihelich and Bob O’Dekirk, did take part.
Schuster’s decision ignited a firestorm of accusations in a hotly contested mayoral campaign.
“All that blew up,” Schuster said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. All this because I decided not to do it?’ ”
After he got a call from a city councilman on the matter, Schuster decided to take the matter to the full City Council.
“I’ve never been told in 30 years, you can’t do this or you should do that. And I go back to Charlie Connor and John Bourg,” he said, naming a couple of mayors from the 1980s.
The whole matter led to questions about what JCTV’s obligations were.
City officials concluded they did not have the authority to tell the volunteers at JCTV whether to cover candidate debates.
JCTV is a public access TV channel created by an act of the federal government in the 1970s to give ordinary citizens a voice on what was then a new thing – cable TV.
Its members are volunteers. They do not get paid, except for one who gets a $600 a month stipend to tape Joliet City Council meetings. But they do get to decide what to put on Channel 6 in Joliet.
JCTV gets about $25,000 a year to pay for equipment, insurance and other expenses from what is called a PEG Access Fee on Comcast and AT&T TV bills. The money is a fraction of the $320,000 the city collects from the fee.
PEG money also has been used to pay for technological improvements at City Hall, including a new control room and cameras used to broadcast council meetings.
“No dollars are exchanged,” Schuster said. “I’ve never seen a penny. It’s all on paper, and it all goes through the city.”
Debate still not aired
When Schuster didn’t go to the debate, another JCTV volunteer decided to. But Schuster said that volunteer never delivered the tape, telling him there was a problem with it, so the controversial debate has never aired on JCTV.
A message left with that volunteer was not immediately returned Tuesday.
O’Dekirk said a tape copy was delivered to JCTV. His campaign manager, Tom Mannix, could not get an answer from JCTV on what format it wanted, but had a DVD sent by messenger either late last week or early this week.
“A DVD was made available to them,” Mannix said.
“They’ve got it,” O’Dekirk said.
“I have not seen it,” Schuster said. “He’s wrong.”
Schuster, after hearing O’Dekirk’s campaign believes the tape was delivered, said he called O’Dekirk on Tuesday.
“I said, ‘Get it to me, and I’ll air it,’ ” Schuster said.
Candace Johnson, one of the organizers of the Cantigny debate, still is upset about how the whole matter transpired.
One big problem, she said, is that JCTV told organizers the station would tape the event. The organizers advertised the debate as being aired live on JCTV. Then JCTV pulled out.
“We appreciate JCTV,” Johnson said. “And we understand that they are all volunteers and that they work very hard.”
But she’s suspicious about how everything happened – especially now that the debate has yet to air.
“Nobody has told me anything,” Johnson said. “We were told it would be aired and nothing has happened.”
A lot of work
Larry Hug is the city councilman who called Schuster. Hug said he called because at the time there were questions of whether JCTV would even air the debate if someone recorded it.
But Hug is critical of JCTV.
“I think what we have learned is that this is not truly a public access channel that is allowing public access,” Hug said.
He said the organization’s bylaws are 30 years old and should be updated. He also says there is not enough participation in JCTV.
“They need to do whatever is necessary to get more people involved and to get people to shoot a myriad of things,” Hug said.
The criticism is not new to Schuster, who has heard it from Hug before. Schuster said Hug has come to JCTV board meetings and called for more volunteers.
“I said, ‘You go find them,’” Schuster said.
The organization has about 25 volunteers. But many shoot events for their churches to be aired on JCTV. Few are available to shoot parades, visits from presidential candidates and other events recorded by a handful of the volunteers.
“I put in hundreds of hours a month,” Schuster said. “I don’t know who else is going to do that. But I enjoy doing it.”
Schuster is a retired plumber from a family business that started in 1906 and lasted 101 years. He got involved in JCTV at the request of his pastor, who wanted him to film church events.
If others want to join, Schuster said they are welcome. The group meets the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
The need for more volunteers is not unique to Joliet.
Skip Lanham is a longtime member of JCTV also involved with other local public access channels. He worked as community access coordinator for cable companies that preceded Comcast’s arrival.
It’s not unusual, Lanham said, to have a husband-and-wife team that creates a large share of the programming on public access channels by putting in the time to attend and film events.
Many volunteers join up to film events for their own organizations or even for their own families, he said.
“I’ve seen volunteers start when the kids start school and stop when their kids graduated,” Lanham said. “The real successful access leagues have at least one couple involved. It does take a lot of time.”
Schuster’s wife Millie is often with him at events. In recent weeks they taped “Dancing With Our Local Stars,” which raised money for Guardian Angel Community Services, and “Men Who Cook,” a fundraiser for the Will County State’s Attorney Children’s Advocacy Center.
Schuster said he shoots close to 100 events a year. His favorite are events that involve World War II veterans.
“You feel like you’re helping and bringing their stories forward,” he said. “They’re all dying.”
Politics is something Schuster said he would just as soon leave alone.
“I don’t want to get in politics,” he said. “I never did.”
WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
JCTV members meet the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 150 W. Jefferson St. The next meeting is April 1. Or call 815-724-3754 for information.