When I read Diana Barth’s September 27, 2012, article on the newest chapter of the Town of Bourne vs. the Friends of the Council on Aging and the town’s seniors, I seethed. The article said the Friends would no longer have a presence at the council office on Main Street. I envisioned the celebrations going on within the town hall, at one end of the community building and by a once-respected, “elder town spokesperson” and his mean-spirited friends. Then, after almost five years of threats and allegations by the selectmen, the town administrator and the Bourne Veterans Memorial Community Center Trustees against the COA’s Friends financial organization, I read this in the Enterprise: “The way that they are handled now—through the Friends’ budget—is how they are handled in most towns,” Town Administrator Thomas M. Guerino said. Mr. Guerino said he asked his peers whether their councils on aging or their Friends organizations collected fees and paid the bills. Their answer usually was, “Who cares?” Well, I for one, care.
At televised selectmen’s meetings the Friends have been bombarded with empty promises of required room fees for Friends-sponsored senior programs and a charge to hold their monthly board meeting. There have been questions about the legality of the Friends using the gym for fundraising events, to distribute holiday toys to children of the Friends Food Pantry families and the use of the community center’s lobby to sell second-hand novels and cards, all to fulfill the mission of both the COA and the Friends. And now Mr. Guerino states publicly that when he finally took the time to ask his peers in other towns, they told him that they don’t care to mess with something that works so well for seniors and for taxpayers. During and since the successful national accreditation peer review process the use of words like unethical, illegal, enmeshed and entangled have been used against the Friends. Is he now saying that nothing substantial can be found to justify the posturing by him and by the selectmen that put the Friends on trial and forced them to endure public disrespect all these months, actually years? As 2012 ends I can’t let go of the feeling that someone should have spoken out long ago about what’s really been going on at the community building.
For full disclosure I should say that I coordinated the Friends funded COA’s National Accreditation process from 2008 through 2010. Since I am no longer a Friends employee, I have worked for months to convince myself that it is no longer my business what the town administrator, the selectmen, the community building trustees or any their minions legislate. As events continue to unfold at the council, I feel forced, ‘after the barn burned down’ so to speak, to express my opinion, one last time, concerning the dismantling of the Friends of the Bourne Council on Aging.
My thoughts as to what happened in the past.
I’m sure some Bourne citizens, especially those under 60 who do not have first-hand familiarity with the excellence of the COA and its past services, could be tired of hearing about the money the Friends helped raise to build and furnish the community center, continue to raise for senior programs, supplies, postage, computers, staff in-service education and the use of the dumpster.
Residents may be tired of reading about the politics of bumping long time, selfless, dedicated COA/Friends staff out of their COA positions and moving in town employees from other departments because of the severe deficit in town funding only to have a surplus of funds magically appear last year after the COA staff had been devastated.
A good deal has also been written about the COA achieving national accreditation. There were quotes reporting that our senior center was the “Gold Standard” for the whole country because of the exemplary, professional functioning of its administration and the way the Friends have worked in tandem with the COA administration to support the needs of seniors through their fundraising.
Bourne also received praise for the volunteer training and oversight of between 15 and 20 thousand hours of time donated each year to support seniors. All of this was accomplished before the elimination of the assistant director / volunteer coordinator position.
The fact that the Friends and the COA’s boards hold their monthly meeting jointly was recognized as one reason for the smooth operation of the council. The COA depends on Friends’ fundraising money to provide programs, events and services but also to make ends meet. The mission of the Friends is to support the mission of the COA. These are fact, old reported facts, but facts. What was news in 2012 was why and how the push to eliminate the Friends got its momentum.
How I learned what I know.
As I began to work with the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) self-assessment committees in April 2008, I noticed that tempers would flair if the word veteran or memorial was left out of Bourne Veterans Memorial Community Center acknowledgements. One ‘senior spokesperson’ refused to accept that the NICS workbooks being used by the accreditation reviewers accepted the words ‘council on aging’ and ‘senior center’ synonymously. He would argue vigorously that the Bourne Senior Center did not exist despite the wording on the sign outside the building’s front door that said it did.
During my first year or so at the COA I felt that a deeply rooted hostility had been buried within the eight year old foundation of the center. Something to do with how it was initially funded or named at town meeting, maybe.
Later, I dismissed the COA’s misfortune and bad press to the fact that it was a strong town department. One that had the support of elected and appointment Commonwealth of Massachusetts figures who publically rated the Bourne Senior Center as one of the state’s best. The COA was run by women in a town legislated over by men, another difficult dynamic. By 2010, it was my opinion that the dismantling of the Friends and the downsizing of the COA coincided with the awarding of the National Accreditation plaque and the celebration the Friends planned to showcase the award. The COA, with funding from the Friends not the town, had achieved national prominence. I believed that was the main reason for the animosity between town hall and the senior center: applause focuses the spotlight in the wrong corner.
I was only partly right because at the same time as the accreditation process began the longtime COA director retired and the familiar, friendly face of the COA began to change. The manager of the Bridging the Years Program was appointed as the new director. I believe the accreditation process and outcome were Ms. Speakman’s career watershed moment in Bourne. In her one year as director Ms. Speakman worked tirelessly to promote and continue the quality of COA programing, all the while she was struggling to maintain a balance between being a friend to the Friends and a town employee with responsibility to oversee the COA which is housed within a town building that contains several, non-senior focused departments includes the building’s manager. The town’s veteran’s agent was just moved in from town hall as well. Also, the building is governed by a separate group of male trustees with a selectman member. A few years back the Bourne Veterans Memorial Community Center’s Trustees gained the favor of town government to take more ‘care and custody’ of the building. Another beginning to the dismantling of the COA’s Friends, in my opinion. After a handshake agreement when the building first opened, the council’s programs were given use of the building weekdays from 9am to 4pm, but the COA has never has a representative on community center’s trustee board. During discussions by the trustees in 2012 about whether or not the Friends should have a presence in the building, none of the Friends executive board was ever invited to sit and discuss the subject with them.
The implications of the successful National Accreditation.
The 2010 National Accreditation success should have been an important and positive event for the whole town, but many major moments frequently have underbellies.
During the nine peer review, self-assessment accreditation committees meetings including Purpose, Governance, Program Planning, Community, Fiscal Management, Administration & Human Resources, Evaluation, Records and Report and Facility all minutia of COA functioning was looked at. Since the COA is housed in the community building, several committees reviewed it as well. The Friends allowed the COA director and the town administrator to deal internally with town issues or community building failures. During the two and a half year process the Friends board never made a negative statement about any issues to the press.
Because the Council on Aging and the town’s Out-reach and Social Worker programs are governed by the COA director but housed in the community center, sensitive issues like the lack of a building and equipment maintenance schedule and fire and evacuation regulations were researched and discussed by the committees then brought back to the authority responsibility for compliance.
The Administration and Human Resource (Admin/HR) committee worksheet required proof of job descriptions and performance evaluations for all COA paid and unpaid staff (volunteers). The town administrator attended an Admin/HR meeting to explain that the Town of Bourne did not have a policy or procedure manual and therefore had no requirement to document town employee work performances, not for salary raises or position changes. For the final accreditation presentation the Admin/HR committee had to write a narrative stating that since the town did not formally evaluate its employees, the COA couldn’t. On the other hand the COA could prove the assistant director/ volunteer coordinator had such a tool and informally did volunteer staff performance evaluations.
One recommendation from this committee was that the town should hire a Human Resource Director who should begin the performance evaluations process for all town employees. There was no way for those good people to imagine that, once hired, the HR director would assumed an adversarial role against the Friends and the COA. She chose Ms. Speakman, who was 11 months into her probationary period, as the first municipal employee to have an evaluation. She worked with the town administrator on a plan to disrupt the functioning of the COA by eliminating the Friends. She has been repeatedly quoted as favoring investigation of the so called ‘illegal enmeshing’ of the Friends and the COA. She never spent one hour working within the council to determine what had been working so well for so long and why the COA was so popular among its clients.
More contentious than that evolution was the relationship with the center’s trustees and building manager over the non-existent equipment and building maintenance schedule which the committee eventually had to write and give to the building manager. Both the Facility and Admin/HR committees were charged by their workbook sections to assure the safety of people in the building. Committee members met with the building manager and the fire department representative only to discover that for the seven years (at that point) since the building had its grand opening, the Bourne Veterans Memorial Community Center had never had a fire drill. Upon further research the committee discovered that, though the building had fire alarms, they had never, yes, never been hooked up to the fire department. It took until this year, 2012, for the alarms to work to the fire department’s standards. Even as late as Tuesday, June 07, 2011 the building manager had to send an email notice to community building personnel that the ‘fire alarm system radio transmitter box’ was not sending radio signals to the Fire Department and that if an ‘audible’ fire alarm was heard within the building people were call 911 on their cell phones.
Right up to the day that Ms. Speakman moved on to a more friendly environment and Lois Carr took over as acting director the need for a plan to evacuate the building of seniors, folks at meetings or kids in the gym was being negotiated with the building manager. Now, with a new director, a plan still doesn’t exist.
In the summer of 2012 when part of Main Street, Buzzards Bay was evacuated because of a broken gas main at BettyAnn’s, the community building manager went yelling through the building in order to get everyone out and away. There was no process for where to have folks meet outside, no system to assure the safety of COA frail elderly or kids in the gym, no opportunity to get a coat, shut off computers, grab a cell phone, secure emergency numbers or check that the building was empty.
I don’t think it was ever reported in any Cape newspaper that a town employee, working in her COA office with the door closed, wasn’t notified of the danger but discovered suddenly she was alone in the building. At least that part of the tragedy was averted. Even with what was happening to them, the Friends again took the high road and didn’t sensationalize this potentially fatal situation outside their board meeting. In all the allegations against them, the mean spirited discussions at selectmen and trustee meetings, they have simply continued to support the COA.
My belief up until 2012 was that the Friends had made some powerful enemies during the accreditation process. How else could I explain the lack of support from the town manager, the selectmen or the trustees for the celebration party the Friends and the COA planned? Because of all the destructive events going on at the COA, the celebration plan was trashed and no one noticed, objected or championed the event.
Someone could have saved a lot of friendly people two more years of stress if they had just informed us in 2010 that the ill-fated accreditation celebration would not be rescheduled. The dismantling of the COA/Friends, which we thought at that point was just a rumor, just bad press was, from the beginning, a fait-accompli. The Friends could have just decided to disband and fade away. They wouldn’t have seen their organization misrepresented in the press or heard the town administrator tell them to hold their board meetings at the Friends Food Pantry warehouse. And then there were the months of paper work after an anonymous request to the state ethics board that came to nothing.
From 2008 to 2012 I had the privilege to observe the powerful, positive and unselfish relationship between the COA and its Friends. As a Bourne citizen and COA volunteer I attended selectmen’s meetings or watched them on TV. I went to building trustee meetings or talked to COA members who did. I admired the endless hours Sandy Vickery, Mandy Speakman, Lois Carr, Estelle Blake, Carol MacDonald, Lisa Laine and the Friends and COA boards spent on behalf of the town’s seniors.
As the Friends Special Projects Coordinator and policy writer, I attended both the Friends and COA board meetings and watched their camaraderie. I read negative comments about the Friends, but I saw first-hand the results of the positive enmeshment between the COA and its funding source. I heard it said that the relationship between the COA and its Friends was unlawful and unethical even though the melding of interests was obviously good for both the town seniors and saved taxpayers money. At meetings the Friends board members would discuss and vote ‘yes’ on every financial request made by the COA director. As an employee, I wasn’t privy to private or professional discussions beyond my position, but when I asked folks what was really going on, no one understood what was at the core of the insistence to detangle the council and its Friends.
Two years ago as a member of the Charter Review Committee I heard the well-known ‘elder town spokesperson’ state that the issues between the town and the Friends had been discussed and decided. A fact unknown to me as a Friends’ employee, but his word held weight back then, so no one questioned whether what he said was fact or opinion.
So when the answer came I was stunned but I have kept silent till now.
What none of us knew.
This fall, I and a room full of seniors heard the explanation for what has really been going on since 2008. It came quite unexpectedly at a Community Building Trustees meeting (not televised) by way of a rant from the same ‘senior statesman’ who assured the Charter Review Committee that all Friends issues had been handled. The gasp from the people in the room should have rocked the town. His confession should have rushed down the community center’s corridors and over to town hall, down MacArthur Blvd. to Pocasset to the Friends Food Pantry. The commotion after the meeting should have caused SPECIAL EDITIONS to be published the next day in the papers of the two reporters who were present. But nothing happened.
What happen at the meeting was that during the discussion concerning the hire of a new COA director, the ‘town spokesperson’ insisted that the trustee’s vote to get the Friends out of the building there and then. The town administrator asked that all parties hold their tongues about the sensitive Friends/COA issues until after the director had at least three months in her job. The trustees and the Friends’ president agreed. The ‘spokesperson’ insisted to be heard again. The chair said he would recognize the man, provided he voiced an opinion on a different subject. This man has the ear of elected officials and states his opinion as fact. The chair’s admonishment was treatment the man is not usually accorded and he was unnerved. He insisted he be heard on his same point, but the chair wouldn’t allow it. The man then began a rant against the Friends and the long since retired COA director for not allowing his group to take over the Friends Food Pantry in 2008. Again, the Friends and council folks present were stunned. After all this time it wasn’t the so-called mismanagement or overstepping of the Friends that heaped five years of misery on them, but the vindictiveness of a group who had their proposal to take over the Friends Food Pantry voted down. The news didn’t cause a stir outside the shocked few of us who heard it. We did learn how in a small town like Bourne it is never smart to say no to the wrong people.
Events as the new COA director began her employment.
The line between the selectmen, the town administrator and the trustees against the Friends has been drawn in cement. The new philosophy is, “You are a municipal employee; therefore you may do nothing on paid time to support the Friends.”
Immediately after assuming the position of COA director last summer the director told the one remaining Friends paid staff that she was not allowed to answer the council phone, use the computers or copy machine or talk to seniors about membership questions. If the Friends wanted her to remain in the building she would have to set up a new desk in the supply closet. So, what happened to the ninety days of not discussing Friends issues with the director? Her next accomplished task, along with the HR director, was to invite the State Ethics Commission to Bourne to explain the law to the Friends as it pertains to municipalities and non-profits. The COA invitation went to all town employees for some reason. Again, the well reported event to finally put the Friends in their place, legally, came to nothing when the representative spoke about municipal employee regulations and not the Friends. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
To spare their staff member any further humiliation and disrespect at the COA the Friends board rented a space on Main Street in Buzzards Bay and opened an office, a decision Ms. Barth reported the non-profit group saying was a “very difficult and forced decision.”
The irony is almost too painful to bear. This Friends staff woman was one of a couple of Bourne folks to conceptualize the need for and to open a Food Pantry 25 years ago when the Pantry was operated out of a closet in town hall.
With this as my opinion of the Friends facts, what will 2013 bring?
The reality for the Friends organization at the Council on Aging office in the Bourne Veterans Memorial Community Building as 2013 begins is that their reward for years of service to the town seniors and tax payers is that they are no longer wanted or allowed at the senior center. I understand that “they” refers to the Friends organization and board, but I have to wonder if it means their volunteers and their money.
I would have thought that by December 2012 the smart people in town government and the Bourne community at large, specifically it’s seniors, would have had an ah-hah moment of their own when they read what was said at the trustee’s meeting and rallied to support the Friends. We generally understand the ramifications of one individual’s personal agenda. But that news was never reported. My guess is that the town will see this ugly head rear again because no one took this man to task that night and I understand that his friends still want what they want.
Connecting the dots requires knowing they exist. I naively expect sometimes the press will be my flashlight on the discovery trail to truth and fairness. This time I have had to find the path myself. I appreciate being allowed to express my opinion. Through all the disservice that has been the Bourne COA’s Friends reality for so many years, their amazing volunteer board still takes the high-road, still financially supports the council, pays to publish their newsletter every month, continues to fund the Friends Food Pantry and tries to stays out of the press limelight. It allows them to celebrate who they are and what they stand for though few notice.
My only hope is that in the New Year they will continue to have the strength to champion of the interests of the town’s seniors. Without their energy and support 2014 could see Bingo as the only activity allowed in the one room granted to seniors at the community building.
Jacqueline Murray Loring