Senior Center Drama And Uncertainty Continues
After the debacle at Tuesday evening's Special Council Meeting where the officials unanimously decided to oust the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation from the Senior Center on West 19th Street, I continued to seek answers to what appeared to be an illegal occupation of that facility the next day. Here's a summary:
LEECE STARTED THE BALL ROLLING
Starting back in 2008 - when councilwoman Wendy Leece responded to complaints from one or two members of the Senior Center by calling for reforms in the way the center was run - rumors have been heard about problems at the Center. Chris Caesar of the Daily Pilot wrote about that turmoil HERE and then-columnist Byron de Arakal's pithy column on the subject a few days later, HERE. I wrote about it HERE. A few months later, in December, the turmoil continued and I wrote about it HERE. Early in January of 2009 I wrote two pieces about Gary Monahan's plan for the Senior Center HERE and HERE.
NEGATIVE PUBLICITY AND ECONOMY CUT FUNDS
As a result of that negative publicity, and the simultaneous downturn in the economy, donations to the Center by previously generous benefactors dried up. Because of budget constraints programs were trimmed back and the resultant discontent seemed to grow. It was a vicious cycle - a wound that has festered now for several years and successive generations of Board leadership have not been able to resolve it.
MANAGEMENT PARTNERS STUDY
The City, which provides services and funding totaling more than $500,000 per year, including rental of the facility for $1.00 per year, contracted for an audit of the Senior Center finances and operations by consultant Management Partners, which issued a scathing report late last year, HERE. It was very clear from that report that the consultants thought the City should take over operations of the Senior Center.
NEGOTIATIONS BEGAN, THEN STALLED
Negotiations began in earnest earlier this year and recently stalled when a stalemate was reached when the City refused to include an indemnification clause requested by the Senior Corporation Board. Then, after all those months of negotiations with the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation Board toward an agreement for shared operation of the Costa Mesa Senior Center, on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 the Costa Mesa City Council took matters into its own hands and unilaterally and unanimously passed a series of motions that will oust the Senior Corporation as a tenant from the city-owned building on West 19th Street that has housed the Senior Center since the late 1990s and install City management of that facility.
Among the motions passed Tuesday were two that authorized the establishment of a new position within City government to manage the center and the authorization to hire a retired former director of a similar facility in Fullerton as the interim manager. The council also authorized free one-year memberships to the Senior Center. All this was done without any kind of transitional agreement in place.
WHERE'S THE AUTHORITY?
It is not clear that the City had the authority to do any of those things except issuing the 90-day notice to vacate the premises. When I read the staff report Monday, before Tuesday's meeting, I contacted Assistant Chief Executive Officer Tamara Letourneau - who had been a member of Management Partners and involved in the above-mentioned audit - to find out where the authority to take over the operations of the Center came from. She told me she believed they had the authority, but didn't tell me why.
A REQUEST TO DELAY TAKEOVER IS IGNORED
Tuesday evening, following the vote, Senior Corporation Board President Judy Lindsay emailed Letourneau and asked her NOT to send staff to the Center until the official notification was received by the Board and they had a chance to review it and brief their already-anxious staff on the future. That request was ignored and the next morning, Wednesday, Letourneau led an entourage to the Center and went about taking over the operations. The official notice was received on Thursday and the Senior Corporation has until September 7, 2014 to clear out.
AGAIN, WHERE'S THE AUTHORITY?
Immediately following the vote Tuesday evening I asked contract City Attorney Tom Duarte the same question. He referred me to Letourneau. I have subsequently tried to communicate with her and with CEO Tom Hatch, who eventually called me back Friday afternoon and we had a good, long, therapeutic conversation. He also disagrees with my assessment of lack of authority to do what they've done, but also could not point me to any portion of existing agreements that gives the City the authority to take over the operations and give away free memberships to the Senior Center for a year.
A "HOSTILE TAKEOVER" INDEED
During our conversation Friday afternoon Hatch challenged my characterization of the actions by City staff Wednesday as a "hostile takeover". (You may recall that councilwoman Wendy Leece specifically stated that this was not a hostile takeover Tuesday night.) When I asked him to describe what he understood to have been the actions of the staff Wednesday morning he did, and it coincided precisely with my understanding of events that day. Letourneau and her group marched into the Senior Center, began rearranging furniture - they cleared out the library and set up new Interim Manager Eloisa Espinosa in that room - and began serving donuts to seniors as they arrived. The Senior Center staff kept a low profile and did not participate, having had NO indication what to expect. I reminded Hatch that those actions - an uninvited incursion which had been specifically requested to be put off until the staff could be briefed - certainly sounded precisely like a hostile takeover.
WHAT ABOUT "THE AGREEMENT"?
I asked him about the proposed agreement, HERE, that had been part of the staff report Tuesday. It has not yet been signed, but appears to be an excellent transition plan for the operations of the Senior Center - except for the indemnity clause. He told me that the staff still wanted to pursue implementing the plan, but when I asked him if that would have council support he couldn't give a firm answer. If I read Mayor Jim Righeimer correctly Tuesday night, I don't think he's interested in any kind of formal plan now that notice of eviction has been given. I may be wrong. However, some members of the Senior Corporation Board are of the opinion that, based on the City's actions Tuesday night and Wednesday, the agreement is off the table.
DON'T FORGET RIGHEIMER'S OPINION
And, some will recall Righeimer's statement during the meeting Tuesday in which he opined that it was probably better for the Senior Corporation to NOT have an agreement and dissolve, because then disgruntled employees wouldn't have anyone to sue. Apparently that's part of his own, personal business strategy.
AN ILLEGAL INCURSION?
So, it is unclear where the City gets the authority to do more than give that 90-day notice to their tenant to vacate the premises. This heavy-handed intrusion into the operations of a private non-profit organization by the City in what is basically a landlord/tenant problem certainly appears to be an unconscionable abuse of authority and may, in fact, be illegal.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF BULLYING
Unfortunately, this has become fairly typical behavior by the current elected City leadership - another example of Ready, Fire, Aim on their part - that has resulted in a string of legal actions and lawyer fees the volume of which have never been seen before. Knowing full well that the cash-strapped Board will likely not pursue legal remedies, the City has just bullied its way into the Senior Center and shoved aside the current management team. By any definition this is a hostile takeover of the Senior Center operations. As a taxpayer and voter, I am appalled at this despicable behavior and wonder just how many more of these kinds of abuses of power we will see from this group.
ALBERT DIXON FOUNDATION BOARD MEETS MONDAY
On Monday the Albert Dixon Foundation Board, chaired by long time community activist and former Senior Center Board President Mike Scheafer, will meet to discuss the current circumstances. That foundation, created as a result of a sizable donation to the Senior Center for senior programs, has provided funding for programs the past several years and, most recently, contributed $50,000 to the Senior Center. It is unclear whether funds from that foundation can be used for operating expenses. Hopefully, this Board will have answers to that question soon. And, we hope there is a way for this foundation to continue to fund senior programs in the city now that the City has taken over operations of the Senior Center.
SENIOR CORPORATION MEETING TUESDAY
Tuesday Morning the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation Board will meet to discuss the events of this past week. It is my understanding that, unfortunately, they did not include the "agreement" mentioned above on their agenda because they thought - as mentioned above - it was off the table.
SENIOR CENTER IN THE BUDGET?
Tuesday evening among the many things on a very packed agenda for the Costa Mesa City Council is the 2014/2015 Budget, included in which is a line item funding the Senior Center. I asked Hatch how that will be handled now, in light of the eviction notice. He didn't have an answer. I then asked him if the council might fund enough of their planned expenditure in July to provide a funding bridge for the Senior Corporation to make it through until their eviction date of September 7th. He couldn't commit to that, but seemed positive about the possibility. One would hope the council would see the value in providing those funds to keep programs moving and so the Senior Corporation can pay their bills through the departure date.
WHAT'S THE ANSWER?
So many questions.... so few answers. The core question - "Where did the City get the authority to take over operations of the Senior Center?" should be a simple one to answer. Because none of the three people who should have had that answer - Letourneau, Duarte and Hatch - have not provided one, it makes this taxpayer and voter very uncomfortable. It's this kind of capricious, shoot-from-the-hip action that creates lawsuits. I guess we'll see...