Parks chief defends layoff of Senior Center manager
Former Ashland Senior Center Manager Christine Dodson was dismissed after parks commission found staff operated with little oversight and resisted changes when the center was performing under the level of satisfaction, the parks director said this week.
New information about the controversial dismissal of Dodson surfaced Wednesday from Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black while his department is facing a potential wrongful termination lawsuit from Dodson, a recall drive targeting three parks commissioners and an age discrimination investigation after a complaint was filed by a former part-time Senior Center employee.
The reason for the dismissal, Black said, was because Senior Center staff was operating as if it was an independent agency within the parks department and resisted changes when the commission decided it was unhappy with the center's performance.
"There was only a small group of people who knew about and used the Senior Center," Black said. "And it was operating more as a club than an place that people can go to get actual social services."
Chris Lundberg, Dodson’s attorney, said via email that Black’s statements are wrong.
“Ms. Dodson supported change, so long as it included the continued provision of important social services to Ashland’s senior citizens,” Lundberg wrote. “In that regard, it is worth noting that in his comments, Mr. Black has admitted a core component of Ms. Dodson’s legal claim — namely, that he and the Commissioners targeted Ms. Dodson for termination based on her willingness to speak on behalf of Ashland’s seniors, which they viewed as a voice of dissension.”
Black said Senior Center staff operated without much oversight or approval from parks department management. Some staff, Black said, filed personal volunteer activities as work time, transported Senior Center volunteers in personal vehicles without suitable assurance of city insurance coverage, recruited volunteers at will without performing background checks or obtaining liability waivers, and provided personal services — including financial and estate planning advice — at the homes of multiple seniors without proper training or assurance of city insurance coverage.
Black said before Dodson’s dismissal, management and parks commission addressed concerns with Dodson multiple times, but to no avail.
"For the Senior Center to act as an independent organization while it's not, it became a threat for the whole organization," Black said. "It needed to follow policies that we have in place."
When the Parks & Recreation Commission decided to reorganize the Senior Center after a 2016 independent performance audit concluded the center was underutilized, Dodson and four part-time employees “demonstrated strong resistance to change,” Black said.
According to the 161-page audit, the Senior Center was deemed a positive feature in parks for focusing on providing social services to seniors, but had the potential to increase attendance by adding more recreational activities.
After six subcommittee meetings between January and August 2017, parks commission agreed to move forward with substantial reform "to offer a more robust program providing, among other things, a wider variety of ‘active lifestyle’ opportunities for a broader age-range of seniors,” Black wrote in a follow-up email.
The reform also included the dismissal of all paid staff, so changes and new recommendations could proceed “free of previously evident strong staff opposition to change,” Black wrote.
The proposal to move the center to The Grove as recommended by the subcommittee and approved by the commission in August 2017 was reversed; other recommendations, including the dismissal, remain in place. Since then, the commission has formed an ad hoc committee of community members and experts, and has accepted three of its recommendations to reorganize the center, including hiring a new manager with “higher level of qualification.”
Members of the group Ashland Support Our Seniors, which is behind the recall effort targeting parks Commissioners Mike Gardiner, Jim Lewis and Rick Landt, have repeatedly demanded answers from the parks commission asking for an explanation why Dodson was dismissed.
“We were advised by the city attorney to limit our comments out of concern with things that are going on,” Black said regarding the timing of the statements. “(Personnel) is not something we usually get into … But we took the route we did to accomplish what we need.”
“It has been frustrating to not be able to share more of the reasons for the Senior Center staff layoffs due to threatened lawsuits,” Landt said Thursday. “I am relieved that more information is now available for the public.”
Black further said he believed the reorganization underway as recommended by the ad hoc committee will result in “an enhanced level of staff, an enhanced level of professionalism and an enhanced level of resources.”
The Jackson County Clerk's office said Wednesday the signature verification process for the recall is expected to wrap up by the end of the week.
Lewis said Thursday he’ll pursue legal action against the claims in the recall petition once he gathers enough information from the city.
— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.
(Feb. 3: Story update to remove an incorrect statement that all changes recommended by a Parks and Recreation subcommittee and adopted by the full commission in August were reversed, except for dismissal of staff. The recommendation to move the center to The Grove was reversed, but other recommendations remain in place.)