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Revised Ashland Senior Center program plan adopted

ASHLAND — After listening to the public vigorously bash members for an hour and ask that the proposal be tabled until residents had more of a chance to weigh in, the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission Wednesday unanimously approved a comprehensive overhaul of the 43-year old Ashland Senior Center, including laying off the two-member staff, chiefly current Senior Program Manager Christine Dodson.

The proposal, somewhat revised from a rowdy public meeting Tuesday, calls for parks staff and volunteers to take over running it for now. Meals from Food and Friends would continue at the center, located at 1699 Homes Ave., as would already scheduled classes, but operating hours will be cut back "in order to focus on redesigning the senior program to make it more robust and more inclusive," officials said.

The plan calls for making the reshaped senior program at The Grove “multi-generational.” It also calls for establishing an official commission subcommittee to provide oversight for the program, hosting open houses and surveying the public about the senior program — an element of public input the overflow crowd Wednesday night complained was missing before the changes were brought up for adoption.

The senior program manager's office, which was at the Senior Center, will now be located at The Grove on East Main Street.

The revamping of the senior program was motivated in part by the need for it to do “cost recovery,” coming up with an additional $70,000 per biennium for starters, but Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black disputed public perception that such money came ahead of senior needs. The revised plan still calls for exploring "options to increase revenue to offset some of the costs associated with the expense of running the senior program."

Senior Program Advisory Committee member Jackie Bachman said the re-do was done with no input from seniors who depend on the center for their social and mental health, noting they can’t afford any contemplated fees for programs when they are moved into the Parks and Recreation Department. The senior program currently reports directly to Black and the commission.

Bachman and many others pleaded that the commission table the proposal, pending a thorough analysis and input from the citizenry of Ashland. Commissioners said they’d been working on it for nine months, but many in the audience said they’d never heard of it before Monday.

Speakers also said there is no logic in merging the senior program with Parks & Recreation and suggested the Senior Center and Senior Program be shifted back to the city as a free-standing program, as it once was. Commissioner Jim Lewis said the City Council had not expressed any interest in taking it over and moving it under city administration.

Bachman said elders are poised to create a “Seniors Indivisible” movement. David Reed added that most seniors are aging baby boomers and have lived through “a lot of political stuff,” with skill at organizing, passing tax levies and developing fundraising campaigns.

“You’ve kicked the hornet’s nest, and we are the hornets,” he said, to much laughter. “You don’t have to close it down. We can start with this tomorrow.”

Anne Bellegia said the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program offers educational opportunities for seniors, but the Senior Center is unique in providing a place for conversation and just hanging out. It is a home-like place where people can make connections, she said, something she doesn't think can happen in The Grove, which was created as a youth center.

“We Ashlanders are very unhappy with the callous way things are being ripped away from us (nationally), and Ashland is better than that," she said.

Gwen Davies echoed the thought, saying, “I’m amazed to hear all this stuff. Democracy is under assault in this country. This was done behind our backs. One minute for input for each person is ridiculous. Our country is of, by and for the people. This is not right.”

Claudia Ballard challenged commissioners, saying, “I don’t know if you love the seniors enough to know the impact of reorganizing it and firing people. It should go to the City Council, where it can fulfill your goals. Mr. Black should look into the heart of Ashland and see the values, caring and wisdom. You have no concept of the values of this community.”

Sandra Sawyer said most people didn’t know this was coming, “so give us a chance, otherwise it’s going to be very messy … Don’t take that as a threat. I don’t make threats; I make promises.”

Ann McGill said seniors, more than any other age group, support the schools and they should not be slighted in old age. “The city should take it on, with more public input.”

Amy Cuddy said she was not pleased that the commission is all male, while a vast majority of those speaking up for the Senior Center were female.

Diane Cooper told commissioners, "I urge you not to do anything. This will disrupt seniors lives in a very immediate way. Don’t do it.”

Will Churchill defended Senior Center Manager Dodson, who was criticized in Black’s memo, noting, “She doesn’t work for you; she works for us.”

Senior Center volunteer Susanne Severeid asked, “Is this how you would treat your grandparents?”

Sue Crader challenged commissioners to explain how they can fire Senior Center management and increase revenue while moving most of the operation to The Grove on Main Street, saying that will require more staff, not less.

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