Saturday, June 14, 2014

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:


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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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...

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

WTF?! Blitzkrieg At Senior Center!

 You probably read my post about the decisions the Costa Mesa City Council made regarding the future of the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation's occupancy of the Senior Center building on West 19th Street.  In that entry I wondered where the City gets the authority to take over the OPERATIONS of the Center from the Senior Center Board.  The contract City Attorney, Tom Duarte, had no response when I asked him that question.  Earlier in the week Assistant CEO Tammy Letourneau told me she believed they had the authority, but didn't give me a reference that bestowed it upon the city.

Then, this morning - as outlined in Hannah Fry's article in the Daily Pilot, HERE - Letourneau led an entourage of city staffers into the Senior Center and took over the place!  They waltzed in, - unannounced - rearranged furniture and apparently began celebrating the new regime!

For those of you renters out there, put yourselves in the place of the Senior Center Board and staff.  If your landlord gives you official notice to vacate in, say, 90 days,  you're going to assume that you will be able to continue to peacefully live in your place until that departure date arrives.  This situation is as though your landlord gives you notice, then the next morning shows up with a crew to begin painting, replacing furniture and showing your place to potential new tenants!

As I read Fry's article one paragraph caught my eye.  It reads as follows, "We're not here to step on anyone's toes," Letourneau said Wednesday morning before entering the building. "We're just here to be helpful." Really?  Well, it seems to me that not only did they step on toes, they stomped on them clear up to the arch!

Once again, it is not clear where the members of the City staff get the authority to show up at the privately-operated Senior Center and just take over.  Worse, last night the President of the Senior Center Board, Judy Lindsay, sent an email to Letourneau specifically asking her to NOT have any city staff show up at the Senior Center until AFTER proper notice had been received as prescribed in the current agreement so the Board could review it and the management could gather the staff to advise them of what the future holds.  That communication was obviously and arrogantly ignored.

The handwriting is clearly on the wall.  Actually, it's more like graffiti.  Lindsay and her staff now know their days on West 19th Street are numbered and that the City fully intends to run a Senior Center without them.  However, the way the staff has steamrollered them in this process is unconscionable.  Last night, during the brief meeting when the decisions were made, several members of the staff and City Council professed to only want what is right for the seniors.  Somehow in all that rhetoric they managed to forget that the Senior Corporation Board is comprised 100% of Seniors - unpaid volunteers who have served on this board in many cases for years!

Letourneau, during her staff presentation and while answering questions, stated emphatically that they "only wanted to help".  That may be true, but their actions tell us their idea of "helping" is to shove the staff and management of the Senior Center out of the way and takeover immediately, completely ignoring the terms of the current valid agreement and the documents the council approved less than a day earlier.

We can only presume this behavior is not only condoned, but encouraged, by CEO Tom Hatch and the City Council.  This kind of heavy-handed behavior is yet another example of how the management of this city has become more like a dictatorship than a government of representatives elected by the people.  Maybe this is just another example of Mayor Righeimer's view of the "normal course of business".  Shame on them.

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Council Votes To Oust Senior Corporation

In a move that was not surprising to most observers, the Costa Mesa City Council voted unanimously last night to evict the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation from the City's building on West 19th Street that has been known as the Costa Mesa Senior Center for fifteen years.  You can read Bradley Zint's coverage of the meeting in the Daily Pilot HERE and - if you can get past the pay wall - Scott Martindale's coverage in the Orange County Register, HERE.

Let me say right up front that I agree with those who said changes were necessary at the Costa Mesa Senior Center.  For the past several years it has come under fire with accusations of diminished services, poor treatment of seniors by staff members and general poor management.  As the criticism grew funding sources appeared to have dried up, so more services were curtailed - a vicious cycle.  Something had to change...

The staff presentation by Assistant Chief Executive Officer Tammy Letourneau included a reference to extreme fiscal distress - citing a claim by Senior Center financial staffers that the Center would run out of operating cash the end of this month.  Apparently, based on information I received later last night, that's not entirely true - the Center still has cash in the bank and has recently been infused by some funds from the Albert Dixon Foundation - a separate non-profit organization created to manage a large financial gift by a former member of the Senior Center.

The meeting began twenty minutes late because the preceding study session ran long, but it took less than an hour to nail the coffin of the Senior Corporation closed.  During Public Comments, in which eleven (11) people - including four current Senior Center Board members and two recently departed members - spoke,  several listed a litany of curious (at best) management moves over the past few years, including inexplicable program closures, grant requests being withdrawn, unusual fiscal priorities and - as recently-resigned member Ernie Feeney described it - a "scorched earth" policy.

Senior Corporation Board President Judy Lindsay strongly defended the actions of the board and the negotiations.  She said she felt blind-sided by the City staff incursion and it's willingness to believe gossip and hearsay and felt bullied.  She, and speaker Beth Refakes, outlined some of the reasons for declining membership - construction at the former Bethel Towers, recent closure of a trailer park that housed any seniors, competition from Newport Beach's state-of-the-art Oasis Center, among others.

Following  a fairly brief discussion by the council, they, in one vote, followed the staff recommendations to:

1 - Issue a 90-day notice to terminate, forcing the Senior Corporation to cease doing business at the Senior Center three months from receipt of the notification.  We presume that means sometime the middle of September.

2 - Pass a resolution regarding waiving the 180-day waiting period before hiring a retired employee - Eloisa Espinosa - to take over management of the Senior Center.

3 - Pass a resolution to create a new position of Senior Center Program Administrator and established the salary range for the job.

4 - Authorize CEO Tom Hatch to execute a three (3) year contract with one optional two (2) year extension with Allied Nationwide Security, Inc., to provide security services at the Senior Center.

5 - Approve one (1) year free membership for all seniors who sign up at the Center.

According to Letourneau yesterday, Ms. Espinsoa, who brings to the temporary assignment thirteen (13) years running a senior center in Fullerton, started to work yesterday and, theoretically, will actually show up at the Senior Center today.  I wonder who will be in charge?

This presents an interesting situation.  I can find no authority under which the council can actually do what they did last night.   Yes, they can certainly exercise the section of the existing agreement with the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation to evict them from the premises, but nowhere is there any authority quoted that permits them to perform a "hostile takeover" (that's councilwoman Wendy Leece's term, used when she denied it was happening) of the OPERATIONS of the Senior Center.

Monday, when I spoke with Letourneau about this "authority" issue, she said "we feel we have the authority", but didn't give me any quotation of where it came from.  Last night, immediately after the meeting ended with Mayor Jim Righeimer closing it with a sarcastic "Let the healing begin!" comment, I cornered contract City Attorney Tom Duarte and asked him the same question.  I acknowledged to him that it appeared the City had the authority to evict the Senior Corporation from the premises, but didn't see where the authority came from to hijack the operations.  He told me to ask Letourneau, which I intend to do early today.
In an earlier post I mentioned the Draft Agreement that was included in the staff report, HERE.  That agreement - which has not been ratified by either party - includes some practical transitional language, but it was not signed by either party because the Senior Corporation Board asked the city to indemnify it's members from possible liability issues - apparently concerned about legal action by employees who will lose their jobs.  In fact, the Board has an attorney working on alternate language for the agreement, which now becomes moot.  I see no circumstance in which the City Council will feel compelled to enter into an agreement now that it has effectively forced the Senior Corporation out of business by evicting it from the premises.  One of the ironies, of many last night, was the constant prattle by members of the council about how unwise the Senior Corporation Board was to not have indemnity insurance when, in fact, the Board DOES have such insurance - it's required to do so by it's bylaws.

Throughout the discussions many speakers, including staff and council members, expressed their primary concern was the well-being of Costa Mesa's seniors.  If you believe only a small segment of the stories told last night and over the past couple of years, the seniors of this city have been poorly served and a change was clearly necessary.  I'm not sure how to interpret the absence of Executive Director Aviva Goelman and other supportive Board members from the proceedings last night.  It could be that they presumed their President, Lindsay, would speak for them all.

As uncomfortable as I was watching a de facto coup take place - despite Leece's denials, it was a "hostile takeover" - I agree with much of what she said.  I think this move will probably end up being the right thing to do for the seniors of this city.  Whether it can be done legally is a separate matter.

Still unresolved is the future of the current employees of the Senior Center.  Since there is no agreement in place for the transition - and it's unlikely there will be one now - it's possible there will still be some pretty rocky days ahead at the Senior Center.  We can only hope that the Board and City Staff will be able to work through the transition of what appears to be an inevitable outcome - the demise of the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation.

And, leaning on a wall over there in the shadows, is the Albert Dixon Foundation with more than a half-million dollars to be spent on Costa Mesa Seniors.  Letourneau acknowledged that the City has no claim on those funds, so that Board - an entirely separate board from the Senior Corporation Board - will have to decide how to proceed under this new regime.

And, in my view (I can't believe I'm going to say this!), the City needs to create a Senior Programs Advisory Committee (not a commission) - a permanent committee much like the Cultural Arts or Historical Preservation committees, to advise the City Council on senior programs and policies.  It would have no administrative or supervisory oversight and former members of the Costa Mesa Senior Corporation should be encouraged to apply for positions on that committee to smooth the transition.

So, now we see what happens over the next few days.  I hope that the welfare of Costa Mesa seniors is, indeed, the primary objective.

Here's a comment uttered by Righeimer at the very end of the meeting.  When discussing the transition and the indemnity problem he spoke about how much better it was for the Board that there was no agreement signed.  He said it takes a lot of pressure off them because once the board is dissolved former employees would have nobody to sue.  He said, "People get laid off.  It's the normal course of business and there wouldn't be any liability with that."  What a guy, huh?

I'll close with a little thought that rattled around in my aging skull - I am, after all, a "senior" myself.  I thought about that "one year free membership" situation and the rascal in me contemplated rounding up some of those senior homeless people that inhabit that Westside neighborhood near the Senior Center and herding them over to the Center to sign up for that free membership.  Sorry - it's late and I needed to give myself a little smile before heading to bed.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Planning Commission Rejects "Noticing" Change

Last night the Costa Mesa Planning Commission, led by an insightful presentation by commissioner Colin McCarthy, decided to actually listen to the residents of this city and rejected the staff suggestion to cease sending notices to adjacent property owners when a two-story home is being planned.

McCarthy had the right idea up front and it was supported by more than a dozen residents who left their torches and pitchforks outside, but brought their passion to the speaker's podium with them.

When it came time for the public to speak first up was council candidate Harold Weitzberg, who set the tone for the remaining speakers when he suggested that a notice be sent to adjacent property owners that he referred to as an "Intent to Construct" notice, and that is should be sent early-on in the planning process to give neighbors a chance to informally discuss the project to see if there are problems that might be worked out before a lot of money is spent on plans and engineering.  This theme ran through the remaining 12 speakers' comments.  Words like "transparency", "good faith" and "be a good neighbor" continued to be heard as speakers presented their own views.

At the end the commission voted, 5-0, to reject the staff proposal and asked the staff to revisit the process to see if the "noticing" can be done earlier.

Public Hearing #2, the Soccer Training Facility was also passed, 5-0, after only ten minutes of discussion.

Public Hearing #3, the planned development of two homes on Palmer Street where one presently exists, didn't fare as well.  Despite the fact that the developer brought to the commission a project that met ALL the guidelines and asked for NO variances or deviations, several of the commissioners got hung up on small items - a large tree that needed to be removed; a fire hydrant; mailboxes and the rear unit opening out to the alley.  Commission Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick seemed to vacillate the most, saying he didn't want to reject the project, and, at the end, this item was continued to the meeting of July 14th and the staff will work with the developer to resolve the sticking points.

Public Hearing #4, which could have been very contentious, was not.  The representative of the developer chose to modify her request and reduced the size of the piece of property involved by about 450 square feet, which apparently satisfied neighbors, including Beth Refakes and others, who came loaded for bear on this one.  Staff will work with the church involved to resolve some eyesore issues and the project will continue.  It passed, 5-0.

Today, Tuesday, the commission meets in a joint session with the City Council at 4:30 in Conference Room 1A to discuss its goals for the next fiscal year.

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