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A small Santa Rosa performing arts theater has found itself in the middle of a real-world political drama, but not one it will be staging, after all.

The 6th Street Playhouse was to be rented Monday by critics and foes of Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo for one of three public meetings where the embattled politician's constituents could air their opinions and discuss whether to recall him.

But after news of the booking became public Wednesday, a theater director backtracked on the deal, citing a concern that the political event was inappropriate for the nonprofit venue.

"We're a cultural arts organization," Craig Miller, artistic and education director for the 6th Street Playhouse, said Thursday. "Anything that's a purely political situation or meeting, I just stay away from it."

Organizers of the town hall meetings said the move caught them cold and appeared to be political in its own right. The 10-year-old, 184-seat playhouse is partly supported by county funding and has a number of influential community members on its board and advisory council, they noted.

"Nothing has changed except for the newspaper article (Wednesday) and all of a sudden it wasn't OK anymore," said Karen Fraser, a Rohnert Park resident who is part of a group called Citizens for Accountability that is planning the meetings. "The only thing we can see is that there is an organized effort to squash these discussions."

Playhouse officials denied those claims and said they are unaware of any political influence in the decision, including anyone weighing in on Carrillo's behalf.

The accusations and responses came in a round of morning-after finger-pointing Thursday between theater officials and organizers of the meetings about Carrillo.

Scott Lummer, president of the playhouse board, said the decision was an administrative one, with no board input on the matter, aside from his own discussion with Miller after the art director had made the call.

"He told me and I concurred," Lummer said.

Arm-twisting by the advisory council, which includes Santa Rosa developer Charles Evans, two former Santa Rosa city councilmen — Mike Martini and Mike Runyan — and several other community figures, would be "extraordinary," he said.

The playhouse does have occasional outside bookings, but has passed on hosting other events that are "inconsistent" with its mission, Lummer said.

County funding would not have factored in the decision, he said. The playhouse has an annual budget of about $990,000, including revenue of about $200,000 from gifts, grants and contributions and $676,000 in admission, sales and facility rental, according to its latest tax forms. County funding for advertising has totaled $30,000 this year and last, with an additional $4,500 to support an annual theater festival, Lummer said.

Citizens for Accountability had agreed to rent the venue for 2-1/2 hours Monday evening for $250, Fraser said. They have subsequently cancelled the forum in favor of a future date when they hope Carrillo may be able to attend. The other two meetings, in Monte Rio on Wednesday night and Sebastopol on Thursday night, will go forward.

Carrillo has denounced the meetings as a "publicity stunt" and said he would not attend. He suggested his absence was all but assured by the fact that the first notice and invitation he received came only on Monday.

Carrillo's early morning arrest this summer outside a Santa Rosa's woman's home and his subsequent legal case have roiled his west county district. He faces a single misdemeanor charge of peeking, but once faced potential prowling and felony burglary charges. If convicted of a felony, he would have been removed from office, per state law.

His critics, some of them longtime opponents and others newly minted, have sought to keep pressure on the 32-year-old, second-term supervisor while keeping his legal troubles in the spotlight.

The about-face by the playhouse put a momentary wrench in those plans and sparked an online post by Fraser that led to differing accounts and finger-pointing in interviews Thursday.

The organizers accused Miller of giving shifting reasons for the decision, first saying the event was just "too controversial," then saying it would conflict with the playhouse's nonprofit status, before ultimately saying it could cost him his job.

In a final call Wednesday night, Miller said he had received unanimous support from the theater's board of directors to drop the tentative booking, according to Fraser.

"He said it was a unanimous decision — 'No'," Fraser said.

Miller, in response, said he was not given the "full story" about the purpose of the event in his initial discussion with Fraser two weeks ago. At that time, he understood the meeting to simply be about "west county concerns," he said.

He was also adamant that, despite organizers' assertions, he alone made the decision and never involved the board in the matter, aside from consulting Lummer, the board president.

Two other board members supported his story, saying the matter wasn't on the agenda and never came up at a meeting Wednesday night.

"It was my decision," Miller said. "I saw the article in the newspaper and I immediately thought — knee-jerk reaction — 'We've got to not do this.' It was a no-brainer."

He added, "I didn't do my due diligence and I apologized to Karen Fraser. But I also think I wasn't given the full story. ... The conversation would have been over that moment (two weeks ago) if she had told me that it had anything to do with a purely political situation."

Fraser said the political bent of the meetings — the 5th district supervisor — was made clear in the conversation.

"It's a town hall meeting. It screams politics," she said. She voiced sympathy for playhouse officials but disappointment in their decision.

Nonprofit status does not strictly rule out the hosting of political events.

Healdsburg's Raven Theater, a nonprofit, regularly holds candidate forums for city council and county supervisor races. But the venue sidesteps strictly partisan events, said executive director Tom Brand, and may have done the same as the playhouse in this case.

"This sounds like a partisan thing," he said.

Lummer said the issue has convinced him the playhouse needs a board-approved policy to guide its future decisions on hosting outside events. Staging controversial plays is hard enough, he said.

"This is something that we'll certainly have to rectify," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

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