SARANAC LAKE - Local senior citizens vented their anger and frustration Thursday over the firing of Saranac Lake Adult Center Director Gina Norton, demanding answers from the nonprofit group that terminated her with no notice and no public explanation.
About 35 seniors showed up for a midday meeting of the center's board. It came six days after Norton was abruptly fired by the Malone-based Franklin County Association of Senior Citizens, which pays the directors of all eight adult centers in the county and runs their meal programs. The association's director, Susan Schrader, and two of its board members, Joe Pickreign and Patricia Manchester, sat in the audience during the meeting.
Recognizing that many people had come looking for answers about Norton's firing, adult center board President Deborah Donaldson immediately opened up the floor to comments from the audience.
Fred Mader shares his disappointment over the decision to fire Saranac Lake Adult Center Director Gina Norton at a meeting of the center’s board Thursday afternoon.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Norton was not there, but her husband, Ken Norton of Lake Clear, was the first person to speak. He urged the seniors and the center's board to move on.
"It was their decision," he said. "What's important at this point is this place continues to go on as it was. Don't let this slow things down. Just let it go."
Norton didn't stick around to hear that most people in the audience weren't eager to take his advice.
Alton Beideck asked the adult center board to go on record opposing Norton's firing and to pass a resolution calling on the association to rescind the decision.
Fred Parker praised Norton for her work at the center over the past two years.
"Where are we getting ahead by firing someone who's been so good, and given so much of herself," Parker said. "You're the board. You should be able to get her back."
Fred Mader said he was heartbroken over the decision, calling Norton "a saint" who worked hard to enhance services for the community's seniors.
"If we do not take a stand, I'm not going to have anything to do with this place anymore," Mader said.
"The people who come here have a right to know why," said Mary Weston. "What did this woman do so wrong that she got kicked to the curb in a day?"
Many of the seniors asked the representatives of the association to explain why Norton was fired. They weren't happy with the response.
"The association cannot speak to this," Manchester said. "We are not at liberty to discuss it. It's a personnel matter."
Weston read part of an article from Tuesday's Enterprise about Norton's termination, where Donaldson said she was told by Schrader that discrepancies over meal payments were the reason why Norton was let go.
Weston then turned to Schrader and asked if that was the explanation she gave Donaldson.
"I honest to God don't know," Schrader said, a response met with a chorus of cat calls and disbelief.
"The wrong person got fired," someone shouted.
Other seniors have told the Enterprise that Norton was fired because she hadn't been charging the center's bus driver and dispatcher for their daily meals. People under 60 are required to pay $6 for meals, while seniors are asked to make a $2 donation, according to Susan Scott, director of the Franklin County Office for the Aging.
Scott, whose office subcontracts with the Association of Senior Citizens to provide services to the county's adult centers, said the meal fee for those under 60 is supposed to be given to the director, a policy she said all the directors were made aware of. Many of the Saranac Lake seniors, however, said people typically pay for meals on "the honor system" by putting money in a box.
"If there was a mistake here, Gina was too trusting," said Joan Hutson. "Gina trusted that people put their money in the box."
Some of the seniors asked if they could get out of their contract with the association, which runs through 2014. Scott said there is a clause that allows the contract to be dissolved with 30 days' notice, but she cautioned the seniors about taking such action, as they'd lose funding for their director, the center's meal programs and its cook.
"Are you willing to lose everything for this?" Scott asked.
If that's the direction the center's board pursues, Pickreign said the full membership needs to be notified.
When the board's meeting finally began, nearly an hour-and-a-half after it was scheduled to start, Donaldson read a statement from Norton.
"I hope the seniors keep faith and stand together to keep what is theirs," the statement read. "It's their center, and they are the ones who have the say where this place goes. They need to stay together and continue to make this place what it is."
"The only ones that are hurting are the seniors," Donaldson said. "I think we need to get together, and let's worry about the seniors."