2018-03-29 / Front Page

Seniors want more say in Grange governance

BY TIM REIL

Since finalizing their partnership 18 months ago, the Friends of the Jamestown Seniors, which has managed the meal site at the Conanicut Grange since 1994, is accusing the town of “metaphorically running a steam roller over them.”

According to Larry Bartley, secretary of the friends, the joint lease for 6 West St. was a measure to save on insurance costs. Since signing the agreement, however, the relationship has morphed into the town making unilateral decisions for the senior center, he said.

The seniors were represented by attorney Kristen Macinni during a special session Monday afternoon with the town councilors, which ended in the formation of a subcommittee to hash out their differences.

Initially, however, Macinni said her clients were interested in discussing their concerns during executive session, although the council was not receptive to that idea.

“My instinct is to have everything open and transparent,” said Kristine Trocki, council president.

With a closed-door session thwarted, the friends submitted their list of issues into public record. Among the items, the friends are concerned about the “disruptive bustle of activity” with expanded programming, citing privacy and security issues.

“The friends recognize the town’s efforts to expand senior programs, which we respect and appreciate,” Bartley said. “But the friends’ philosophy is not just about expanded programing.”

Prior to 2015, the memo indicates, all programs and services were provided by the nonprofit group, not the town. Since then, the recreation department has been administering most of the programming.

The seniors also want clarification on which side is responsible for grant applications. Finally, the friends said they are confused about money from the town, including $20,000 to repair the downstairs floor and $20,000 for air conditioning and soundproofing.

Town Administrator Andy Nota said Tuesday he believes some of these problems “will be easy to address with minimal clarification, while others may require more detailed discussion in establishing a factual baseline as to why certain actions were taken and why select oversight and management changes have now become necessary.”

As an example, Nota pointed to money for a new floor that was approved at last year’s financial town meeting. This money, he said, is public tax dollars.

“Like in every collaborative venture, both partners should contribute in the planning, discussions and final decision making,” he said. “In this case, a final decision of both parties has not yet been reached on the flooring type.”

Moreover, he said approval from the Conanicut Grange is required as part of the lease terms. As for the HVAC and soundproofing outlay, Nota said the money referenced in the capital improvement plan for 2018- 19 hasn’t been approved by the council or voters yet.

“They don’t yet exist,” he said.

Nota said these “simple clarifications” can be made on a routine basis through monthly meetings between friends and the senior coordinator, which haven’t developed yet. Up until now, he said, his staff has not been aware of these concerns.

The councilors agreed professional staff should have been approached by the seniors instead of asking for a public meeting with the council. Councilman Blake Dickinson was visibly annoyed, citing similar relationship problems with the library trustees and the fire department’s board of wardens.

“I’m fundamentally flabbergasted by this,” he said.

“I agree with Blake in many ways,” said Mike White, vice president. “This should have happened without the help of the town council.”

Because there were too many board members from each side at the table, Trocki suggested a subcommittee be formed to outline the organization, direction and interaction between the two sides. Peter Ruggiero, town solicitor, agreed.

“It’s always difficult with a group this size to make productive progress,” he said.

The subcommittee was not given direction as to what will come from the meetings. Both a memorandum of understanding and a lease addendum were mentioned. Because of that, Trocki asked the board to report back by the first meeting in May. Dickinson agreed this problem should be dispatched and taken off the council’s table sooner rather than later.

“I’m suggesting that we treat this with some level of urgency,” he said.

The subcommittee consists of Councilors Mary Meagher and Gene Mihaly. The friends will be represented by board members Ellie Chase, Nancy Beye and Heidi Keller Moon. Nonvoting members will be Nota, Ruggiero and Maccini.

“This is a very important conversation,” Trocki said. “I certainly value the discussion that we’re having. Sometimes it’s easy for miscommunication to happen.”

Return to top