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Patrons air senior center gripes to state officials

Jul 6, 2012 - By Emily Etheredge, Staff Writer

For months, some members have complained about center's staff and and board of directors have been handling things.

A group of more than 50 senior citizens met to discuss their concerns about the Riverton Senior Citizens Center with Wyoming State Sens. Eli Bebout and Marty Martin at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Riverton.

Timothy Ernst, the Wyoming Department of Health deputy administrator of senior services, mediated the two-hour meeting on June 26, which was organized after the seniors said they had a problem with how the center and board of directors have been handling things.

Before the meeting began, Ernst asked that everyone be respectful, and he limited each person's speaking time to five minutes.

"The Wyoming Department of Health has no authority to tell a senior center how to run its business," Ernst said. "The state of Wyoming has no authority with personnel issues. However, we are here to assist and try to make this situation a win-win if we can."

Bebout said the meeting was set up to hear the concerns of the seniors.

"That is how we operate in Wyoming," Bebout said. "There is an issue, we want to hear about it and talk it out. We will be here as long as it takes to hear every concern in this room."

Martin said he was concerned that a rift could cause people to stop coming to the center, which could result in fewer funds.

"The senior center provides many services for seniors," Martin said. "Everyone needs to think about the center itself, resolve any issues that might be going on, and move forward."

Board procedures

Frank Tanner said he is disgruntled with the way the board of directors is handling issues within the center.

"Old people have the right to be heard," Tanner said. "Seniors should have the right to vote for who is on their board of directors."

Tanner told the senators that he approached the center's board of directors before one of their meetings and was told he would have three minutes to speak.

"I was told the board would take my list of concerns, and discuss it, but I never heard another word about it," Tanner said.

Tanner said the board does not take detailed minutes of the board meetings, making it difficult for them to be held accountable.

Bebout asked Tanner when he last had contact with the board.

Tanner said he had spoken board members in May.

Tanner told Bebout he was called a Nazi by a staff member at the center during the last board meeting he attended.

"I was allowed to sit in the board meeting, the president convened the meeting with the door still open, and invited two ladies to come into the room," Tanner said. "The two women started berating us and verbally attacked us."

Tanner said he was threatened with arrest, at which point he decided to leave the meeting.

"Every center in this county has a board that is elected," Tanner said. "We have no accountability with our board. I have no question the people on the board are good people, but if I was to rate the board with 10 being the best and one being the worst, I would give this board a zero."

Betty Bynon said the center used to be a place that centered on community and social activities.

"I feel like center staff is wonderful and friendly, but they are all about the staff," Bynon said. "When it comes time for something the seniors might not like we are ignored."

Training shortfall?

Dan Lewis said he had served on the board of directors for two years, and with a volunteer organization like the center, no one ever agrees on anything.

"There are a lot of people on the board that have no clue with what they are supposed to be doing," Lewis said. "This goes back to training that has fallen by the wayside."

Lewis said it hurt him to see the feuding taking place over the center. He reminded everyone that Riverton has one of the best senior centers in Wyoming.

"Riverton should be proud," Lewis said. "There are just some people who like to complain. The board has worked hard, it is a volunteer organization, you won't satisfy everyone. Every time I am at the center, the place is jam-packed with people."

Ellie Urbigkit, who has been involved with the center for more than 20 years, reminded everyone not to let the negative comments about the center interfere with its success.

"The fact we are doing good means we have an excellent staff, board and volunteers," Urbigkit said. "People who have a problem with the center need to come volunteer to see what is going on."

Bynon said Urbigkit's statement reflected the happiness of staff and volunteers, but many seniors were not happy.

Congeniality lost

George Bartlett said he was president for two years and vice president for four years, during which time there was a congenial group of people on the board. Bartlett blames the problems at the center on mismanagement. He said seniors' concerns are dismissed with a bad attitude.

"I was called a troublemaker because I disagreed with the board," Bartlett said. "Our problems deserve to be heard. The attitude is 'if you don't like the way things are running, then stay the hell out.'"

Bebout asked Bartlett what was different about the current board from when Bartlett was president.

"It is an attitude problem," Bartlett said. "The board acts as if it is their way or the highway."

Election resisted

Board member Jay Vincent said the board is trying to accommodate by explaining there is always room for improvement.

"We have discussed the issues ad nauseum," Vincent said. "The folks that do have concerns keep bringing them, and after a certain point we have to agree to disagree. Our numbers at the center are increasing, the director is doing a great job, and there are some things I can do nothing about."

Vincent said he didn't want to commit center resources to elections for board members.

"If we had an election of board members, it would cost staff a lot of money," Vincent said. "I don't think now is the time to have public elections."

Training advised

Bebout asked Vincent if he would be in favor of having a board training session for the nine member board.

Vincent said he would be in full support of board members going through training.

Ernst said he would send Bill Miller, who works with the Wyoming state liability pool, to meet with board members and go through a four to five hour-training session.

Martin said good points were mentioned in the meeting from both sides, but people are feeling alienated, which is never a good thing.

"You currently have a community that is divided," Martin said. "I believe an open dialogue is healthy, and an election process for board members would actually not be that expensive."

The City of Riverton owns the senior center building, which was built with a capital facility use tax.

"If the city owns the center, the city should have a representative from the city to sit in on the meetings," Martin said.

Bebout said he would like to come to a future board meeting at the center to see firsthand what was happening.

"I always like to end a meeting with a way to go forward," Bebout said. "Vincent has a commitment to board member training and we will see if things start to resolve."

Tanner said the seniors were merely wanting to be heard fairly and in a civil manner agreeing to work toward resolving conflict within the center.

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