SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Adult Center has avoided losing its meal programs by agreeing to bar its former director from the building for 90 days.
The agreement with the Malone-based Franklin County Association of Senior Citizens, which runs the adult center's congregate and home-delivered meal programs and pays its director, was announced Thursday at the beginning of a well-attended adult center board meeting.
"We have 90 days to calm down this situation, to show what we really are about and move on," said board member Joan Hutson. "All the drama, all the hysteria is over."
But whether the agreement will actually end the turmoil that's surrounded the center for the past three months remains to be seen.
The unrest began in November when Gina Norton, who had been director of the adult center for roughly two years, was abruptly fired. Susan Schrader, the association's director, has not said publicly why Norton was terminated, calling it a personnel issue. Adult center board members and others have told the Enterprise it had to do with record-keeping discrepancies over meal payments.
Norton's sudden termination sparked frustration among many of the center's seniors. Some called for her reinstatement. Others said they would stop coming to the center.
The association subsequently hired Jennifer Grisi as the adult center's new director. She started work in early December, but Schrader said trouble began to brew when Norton returned to the center.
"I was here three days one week when Gina continued to come into the center, and she continued to act like she was the director, and we just couldn't allow that to happen," Schrader told the Enterprise Thursday. "Jennifer didn't feel that she was getting the support that she should."
Norton, however, says that wasn't the case. She told the Enterprise she was coming in "as a participant, encouraging people to come back, help out and give Jen a chance."
Regardless, the association asked the adult center's board for a "plan of action" that recognized Grisi as director of the facility.
Hutson said the board voted on Dec. 29 to prohibit Norton from coming into the center for 90 days, but for some reason that wasn't communicated to the association or the association didn't think it was adequate. When the association's board failed to get what it felt was an "appropriate response," it voted to give the adult center notice that it would terminate its contract with the facility in 30 days.
In a Jan. 4 letter to adult center board President Deborah Donaldson, the association said it would only rescind the decision if Norton was "permanently removed and barred from the Saranac Lake Adult Center, and Deborah Donaldson, John Hu(t)son, Bill Isham and Bunny Isham have resigned from the Saranac Lake Board of Directors. The latter four have made it very clear that their loyalties are to the former director and not to the seniors in the Saranac Lake community."
Asked if essentially blackmailing the center was appropriate, Schrader said her agency was trying to protect senior services in Saranac Lake.
"We have to ensure our seniors are able to comfortably come into this center without any chaos, and that's what we're trying to do," she said.
The standoff culminated in a Monday meeting in Malone, attended by the four adult center board members named in the letter and representatives of the association.
"We talked about what had happened at the center and that we don't want the association to pull out the meals," Hutson told the seniors at Thursday's board meeting.
After two hours of talk, the association agreed not to pull its meal programs from the center and rescind its call for the four board members' resignations, provided Norton is barred from the adult center for 90 days.
"We accept that Gina is gone," Hutson said. "We can't go back. We, the board members, are not going to leave the board."
Schrader said the association is comfortable with the agreement.
"We want this to continue to be a partnership, and we'll do whatever it takes," she said. "I'm confident that in the 90 days we can do this."
Some in the audience Thursday questioned whether Norton can legally be barred from coming into the building. Hutson said the board would look into it.
Hutson then asked the audience who supported the agreement. About two-thirds of the crowd raised their hands. The board then moved on with the rest of its business, although a handful of people walked out.
Alton Beideck, one of the seniors who was upset over Norton's firing, said he didn't like the way the association tried to force members of the adult center's board to resign, although he understands the agreement.
"I hope it turns out alright after the 90 days, but will it?" Beideck asked. "I'm very suspicious."
Asked if she'd abide by the prohibition against her coming to the adult center, Norton said yes.
"Because if I don't, what happens? They lose the nutrition program and that's not right," she said. "I'm not going to do anything that hurts the seniors. The sad part is they're using the nutrition program to blackmail and threaten the board. The board members they wanted gone are the ones that for the last two months have been in there encouraging people to come back, participate and work with Jen."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.