SARANAC LAKE - A group of local seniors say the Franklin County Association of Senior Citizens overstepped its bounds by pushing the Saranac Lake Adult Center to ban its former executive director from the center.
They say the Malone-based association used what amounted to "extortion" by threatening to pull its meal programs from the center unless Gina Norton was permanently barred from the center. The association had also called for the resignation of four center board members.
"We support the food program; everybody does, but that doesn't mean (the association) has to bully and kick people off the adult center board," said Mary Weston, one of a group of six seniors who met with the Enterprise last week. "They've systematically ruined a great, thriving adult center."
The center's board ultimately voted to bar Norton from the premises in February, despite an attorney's opinion that doing so may open it up to a lawsuit. Two of the four board members the association targeted - Joan Hutson and Bill Isham - have since resigned.
The association's director, Susan Schrader, didn't return several messages left at her office this week, but adult center board members who supported banning Norton said it was the right decision and criticized the seniors who continue to sound the alarm over what happened.
"What we did, we did for the good of the center," said SLAC board member Shirley Pickreign. "Now, there's got to be a healing period, and these people aren't letting the healing happen. They just keep it up and up."
The turmoil surrounding the adult center dates back to November when the association, which pays the directors of all eight adult centers in the county and runs their congregate and home-delivered meal programs, abruptly fired Norton. Schrader hasn't said publicly why Norton was terminated, although some adult center board members have said it had to do with record-keeping discrepancies over meal payments.
The association subsequently hired Jennifer Grisi as the adult center's new director. She started work in early December, but that didn't end the controversy.
Norton continued to come into the center and, the association says, interfered with Grisi doing her job by continuing to act as the center's director, which Norton has denied. In response, the association gave notice that it would terminate its contract with the adult center unless Norton was permanently barred from the center and four members of the board whose "loyalties are to the former director" - Hutson, Bill Isham, Bunny Isham and its president, Deborah Donaldson - resigned. The center's meal programs would have been moved elsewhere in the community.
When asked by the Enterprise if essentially blackmailing the center was appropriate, Schrader said her agency was trying to protect senior services in Saranac Lake.
"We have to ensure our seniors are able to comfortably come into this center without any chaos, and that's what we're trying to do," she said at the time.
By mid January, however, the board appeared to reach an agreement with the association that would keep its meal programs intact. Norton would be banned for 90 days and the four board members would be allowed to stay. Schrader told the Enterprise then she was comfortable with the agreement.
But before the 90 days was up, on Feb. 18, the adult center's board voted to permanently bar Norton from the center.
"The board of directors hope this will comply with your requests and satisfy the association that we have removed the obstacles that you feel have impeded the smooth operation of our center," Donaldson wrote in a Feb. 25 letter to the association.
Before taking that vote, the center's board had sought legal advice from Saranac Lake attorney Robert White. In a Jan. 31 letter to the board, White wrote that banning Norton permanently from the center could create some legal issues.
"Your bylaws indicate that anyone 50 years of age or older can become a member, and the former director is a member," he wrote. "Banning someone outright who is a member from the property might create some legal problems or tax exemption related problems. It could get quite expensive researching issues such as that."
White recommended the board advise the association that it would ban Norton from the center during the hours when the association is providing services, five days a week between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
"It would seem to me that it would show very bad faith on the part of the association if it did not agree to this resolution," White wrote. "Otherwise, the association might be opening itself up to a lawsuit brought by the former director."
Donaldson told the Enterprise that the center's board wrote a letter to the association suggesting that compromise, but it got no response. Meanwhile, she said, an adult center board member, whom she declined to name, continued to push for Norton to be permanently banned.
"She wanted to go along with Malone, with what they were saying to us that they wanted Gina banned permanently, not just during working hours," Donaldson said. "The board finally went along with it. In order to keep the peace, to keep the meals on wheels at the center, it seemed like the thing to do.
"It's not legal to do that, to ban her permanently," Donaldson added. "You can't. It's a public place. But that's what the board wanted, and majority rules."
Pickreign said the board did the right thing. She said she wasn't worried about any legal issues.
"We have a right to legally bar anyone from there," she said. "We own the building. Bob didn't want us to because he wanted us to try and work it out.
"The only thing I can say is that if you had a company and you let an employee go, that employee doesn't normally come back to the company."
"We just felt it was better that (Norton) not come at all, even after the 90 days, because of the interruption she brought," said adult center board member Dolores Commo. "It was best we did it that way because we were always concerned the (association) would pull out and go somewhere else."
Pickreign said she'd be willing to revisit the ban of Norton in a year, after a cooling off period.
Even Donaldson, who was opposed to permanently barring Norton from the center, said she wants to move on.
"It's over and done," she said. "We made the decision, maybe it's not the decision we should have made, but we made it and therefore we have to stick with it. That's all there is to it."
But the half-dozen seniors who approached the Enterprise last week said the board should have heeded White's legal advice and not caved to the demands of the association.
"The board has no power," said Alton Beideck. "They've stripped them of their power. So every time something comes up, they're going to take (the meal programs) up and use it as a club."
"I think a light needs to be shown on the association up in Malone," Weston said. "Someone's got to look at them and say, 'What the hell are you doing? Who is for senior citizens and is doing this? This is wrong."
The seniors also said the controversy has driven people away from the center.
"The lunchtime numbers are way down," said Bruce Forsyth. "There's just a dark cloud hanging over it."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.