ASHLAND — A couple dozen seniors and their supporters marched in the Plaza on Wednesday, braving the worst smoke in memory to keep up the drumbeat of preventing reductions to the town’s 43-year-old Senior Center.

But amid the sign waving, seniors seemed resigned to changes the city has made to the center, including dismissal of its staff.

“I’m afraid there’s not a lot of movement on this (since the shift was made public Aug. 8),” said former Senior Center manager Sharon Laws. “They talk and talk and mention how the ad hoc committee will be selected in ways that aren’t necessarily advantageous to seniors.”

Laws faulted the flow of information about the closure of the Senior Center, noting “it’s not all inclusive” and adding, “We would like to shine a light on it … It was pretty much taken over and damaged by people who don’t appreciate it or see it as good. It’s sad.

“It should have been mediated. The seniors should have been heard. There was nothing wrong with the way it was being run. It should have been built on, not torn down.”

After a long study and many meetings — about which seniors say they weren’t given notice — the city Parks & Recreation Department rolled out a major restructuring of the senior program, which initially called for shifting some center offerings to The Grove on Main Street by the police station, but leaving Food & Friends in the old building. The center was also faulted for not making money to pay its way.

The radical restructuring, since tempered to leave most center activities there, has been a moving target for elders, who complained of getting fuzzy outlines of things to come.

Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black has called for a regimen of “cost recovery” of $75,000 over the next two years at the center. In a memo dated Aug. 7, Black said the senior program could offer much more that it currently does.

The "senior program is staffed and funded comfortably; the Ashland Senior Center’s cost recovery, however, is almost non-existent," he said. ″... In order for (it) to continue to function, even at its current level, it will need to start earning revenue. ... If we fail at this endeavor, it is possible we will not be able to afford the program and any service we currently offer, and those that we have the potential to offer could be lost.”

Parks & Recreation has moved an ad hoc committee to the front burner, to comprise members from its department, the City Council and the public — and with a mission of formulating the future course for the senior program.

“The ad hoc committee is not there to redo the plan that was approved,” said senior advocate and hospice volunteer MaryAnn Perry. “It’s there to help them implement it.”

Her housemate, Bert Harris, advocated a recall of the members of the Parks & Recreation Commission, which unanimously voted for the Senior Center changes, resulting in the firing of longtime manager Chris Dodson and one other employee.

“We should be working on the recall now,” said Harris, “but I don’t see one person with a sign about that. It’s our only way out.”

Registered nurse Glenda Rackleff, who has run a volunteer foot care clinic at the Senior Center for a decade, said, “What’s going on is pretty nasty. It lacks compassion and understanding of the culture that goes on there. The Senior Center has just gotten better and better over the last decade until this.

“We should not be under the Parks Department. They’re intimidated by older women who run the senior program. It’s working. Tai-chi and all the other classes there are jammed. We want to keep this independent and healthy.”

Protester Gwen Davies said the Senior Program needs to move back under the City Council, not Parks & Recreation. “A lot of damage has been done, a lot of loss from the layoffs — and no one is available for seniors now. The (Parks) people don’t listen to the public and … they don’t know the program.”

Protester Linnie Pucci said, “We would love to see our Senior Center loved and cared for. We’re all old. We need the food and socializing to stay healthy. We’re accustomed to that environment. It’s like a second home to us. We get our exercise, meditation, psychological and spiritual needs met there.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.