SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Adult Center Board of Directors has rescinded its decision to permanently ban its former director from the facility.
Meanwhile, the woman who replaced Gina Norton, Jennifer Grisi, announced during Thursday's board meeting that she's resigning for family reasons, although she told the Enterprise after the meeting that the turmoil surrounding the center over the last nine months played a role in her decision to leave.
Thursday's reversal, which took two votes and wasn't unanimous, allows Norton to immediately return to the adult center, from which she had been permanently barred in February. It came after town of Harrietstown and North Elba officials essentially threatened to withhold future annual contributions to the center, citing legal concerns about contributing taxpayer funds to a facility that's barring eligible residents from its premises like it is a "private club."
While the decision to reinstate Norton was applauded by some and should preserve the roughly $30,000 that surrounding towns contribute to the center, it could again put the center's meal programs in jeopardy of being moved elsewhere.
The Franklin County Association of Senior Citizens, which pays the directors of all eight adult centers in the county and runs their meal programs, had threatened to terminate its contract with the Saranac Lake Adult Center unless Norton, whom it had fired in November, was permanently barred from the center and four members of the board resigned. It's unclear how the association will respond to Thursday's decision.
The town of Harrietstown had withheld its $18,000 annual allocation to the center for six months because town board members were concerned with the decision to permanently ban Norton from the building.
Late last month, the board ultimately agreed to release the funds, but Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua sent the adult center board a strongly worded letter, which its board president, Deborah Donaldson, read aloud at the start of Thursday's meeting.
"While we do not wish to interfere in the operation of the adult center, we feel that if the issue is not resolved it may put future contributions in jeopardy," Bevilacqua wrote.
The supervisor cited a letter sent to the adult center board by local attorney Robert White, who said banning a member from the property might create legal issues or tax-exemption-related problems.
"We have an issue with giving public money to an organization that is going to ban somebody for other than some really explicit reasons that would make some sense," Harrietstown Councilman Barry DeFuria told the center's board Thursday. "Personally, if something isn't resolved here, I'm going to take a look seriously at the (town's) funding for here."
Town Councilman Ron Keough said the board "wants some sense that this facility is moving on and there is no discrimination here."
North Elba Councilman Bob Miller said his board is in "lockstep" with Harrietstown officials. North Elba contributes $1,000 a year to the adult center.
"We want to continue to support this facility, but we can only support it if we believe services are being provided in a fair and equitable manner to anyone that wants to use it," Miller said.
Some seniors urged the center's board to rescind its ban of Norton while others just wanted the board to move on.
"We need to put the past to rest and go forward," one woman said. "If we constantly bring up what happened and what should have been done or shouldn't have been done, we are never going to get anywhere."
"Let's lift the ban immediately and put mechanisms in place so this sort of thing doesn't happen again, which is what Ron Keough has indicated he'd like to see," said Bruce Forsyth.
"This isn't really about Gina; it is about the thing that you can't ban people," said former adult center board member Joan Hutson. "The law, so to speak, is saying you can't ban somebody from your nonprofit organization. What we're asking for is for the board to say 'Oops,' and fix it."
Those who supported the ban of Norton said she continued to come into the center and act like its director after she was fired, which Norton has denied.
"It's a lose-lose situation," said board member Shirley Pickreign. "If we don't lift the ban, Harrietstown is saying they're not going to fund us next year. If we do lift the ban and Gina comes back in and interferes with services, then we risk the chance of Malone pulling its services out of here."
Mike Kilroy, who recently rejoined the adult center board, said it has to take care of its own business and can't worry about what the association will do.
"We're going to have to say, 'This is what we're going to do; let the chips fall where they may,'" he said. "If we lose that $18,000, you can bet that North Elba, Brighton, Franklin and the rest of them are going to follow suit. That's $30,000 a year. You need that $30,000."
Susan Scott, director of the Franklin County Office for the Aging, stressed that local seniors wouldn't lose access to the meal programs if the association nixes its contract with the adult center. They'd just take place somewhere else in the community, she said.
Kilroy made a motion to immediately remove the ban on Norton. When the votes were tallied, the result was a 5-5 tie with board member Kathy Schneck abstaining, so the motion failed.
Another discussion then ensued, where supporters of rescinding the ban spoke passionately.
"I just cannot picture banning somebody when this place is funded with public money," said adult center board member Cindy Hovland. "It's everybody's money. How can you pick and choose who you are not going to let in?"
"The issue for us is not whether she comes in or she doesn't, or he does or he doesn't," Keough said. "It's the concept and the principle of banning people, period."
Pickreign asked what would be done if Norton returned and did interfere with the center's operations. Kilroy said the board can appoint a committee to review the center's bylaws and add a "discipline" section.
A second vote to rescind the ban took place. It passed 6-1, with four people abstaining. The board members in favor were Donaldson, Kilroy, Hovland, Bunny Isham, Jean Darrah and Schneck. Kathy Durkin voted no, and Pickreign, Dolores Commo, Louise Pearl and Marilyn Clement abstained.
Susan Schrader, executive director of the Franklin County Association of Senior Citizens, said she'd report the board's vote to her board at its next meeting. Asked if she was disappointed with the decision to reinstate Norton, she declined to comment.
After many in the audience had left, Grisi read a letter to the board announcing her decision to leave the center, which she said she made several days ago. She told the Enterprise that she had taken a pay cut to become the director, and that her son had recently decided to attend Northwood School.
"Even though he got a scholarship, it's still going to be quite a stretch for us," Grisi said, so she's decided to pursue a higher-paying position and has already had a couple of offers.
Grisi admitted the turmoil of the last few months created a "hostile work environment" that played into her decision to resign.
"It did, because of the fact that this very vocal group would not let it go," Grisi said.
Schrader said she's "devastated" that Grisi is leaving.
"It's going to be very difficult to find somebody to step in here with everything that's happened," she said.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.