Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds.
In the weeks following the controversial Oct. 17 dismissal of beloved South County Senior Center director Farrell Fleming, for instance, members say the center’s hurt has actually deepened.
The center’s discord started with a special meeting of the board.
Now, it involves the police, the mayor’s office, the firing of the center’s top remaining administrator and allegations of board members blockading that administrator in her office.
While board president and interim co-director John Wagner says the 1,500-member center is still running well, and “doing a very good job,” members are circulating a no-confidence petition harshly critical of the board and board members are allegedly tearing documents out of members’ hands and shredding them.
“The center was doing such great things. It really was. It is a shame for things to go this way,” Fleming said this week. “All sorts of really small organizations can go strange for unknown reasons, and unfortunately this one has.”
Before this week, much of the membership’s anger has revolved around Fleming’s dismissal, which was unexpected, and for which the board has given zero public explanation. Fleming had been the center’s executive director since 2001.
According to Fleming, there wasn’t any private explanation either. A letter detailing his dismissal “made the point that because I was working an at-will position, they didn’t need to give a reason,” he told the Enterprise Monday.
Now, other issues are coming to a head.
About 100 people had signed the no-confidence petition at press time, and multiple members of the center said they would like to see new blood on the board of directors.
They members would also like to see a new system in place that takes the membership’s opinion into account, many said.
“It is now a board that is just all in synch with the president of the board. And that is not what is needed,” said Tom Robinson, who plays pool every Tuesday morning at the center. “I don’t think they take the members into account.”
At two meetings immediately preceeding Fleming’s Oct. 17 dismissal, many seniors vocally defended Fleming in front of the board, and a few board members lept to his defense. But, impassioned defenses seemed to make little difference to Wagner, members said.
The situation might have peaked Monday afternoon when police were called to the center in an episode that ended in the firing of program director Kathy McNaulty. According to McNaulty, she was twice physically grabbed by board members and blocked from leaving rooms in the center, including her own office.
Wagner, who allegedly was one of the people blocking McNaulty, said she was never blocked or touched. He refused other comment on the episode, but said the center would issue a press release. No such release was available before press time.
One witness confirmed McNaulty’s version of events to the Enterprise, and called Wagner’s denials lies.
According to McNaulty, the board members requested McNaulty come to the executive director’s office, but refused to allow her a witness, which McNaulty insisted upon.
After five assembled board members briefly refused to let her leave the executive director’s office, three of them – Wagner, co-director Jane Jones and board secretary Mary Thomas – followed McNaulty into her office.
When she was again blocked from leaving, McNaulty began banging on her office window, and begging to be let out. A staff member called 9-1-1.
Genevieve Wilson, whom McNaulty wanted to witness the conversations from inside the offices, instead witnessed them from outside. She confirmed McNaulty’s story, calling the board member’s actions “crazy and out of line.”
“All hell has broken loose at the senior center,” said Wilson, who said she would no longer volunteer weekly with the center’s transportation program.
After the episode, police barred McNaulty from the center and its parking lot at the request of Wagner. According to Sgt. Don Anderson with the Edmonds police department, McNaulty later attempted to press assault charges in the case. While an investigation was ongoing at press time, McNaulty did not complain to officers on the scene of assault, and so it does not appear any charges will be forthcoming, Anderson said.
In the hours preceding the alleged assault, McNaulty played an active role in the deepening crisis.
Early Monday morning, she wrote, printed and distributed a letter at the senior center which criticized the board’s recent actions, and called for the board to work out a solution with the membership. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Enterpise. After distributing the letter, she had a meeting with Mayor Gary Haakenson in his office.
Last week, Haakenson sent a letter to the board of directors in which – while staunchly defending the board’s right to hire or fire Fleming – he criticized the board’s methods, calling them “very unprofessional.” He called for reconciliation and a board retreat.
Haakenson’s letter also addressed rumors that the city was interested in selling, closing or moving the senior center. He denied that there was any interest in doing any of those things.
The mayor also criticized the board’s decision this year not to host its annual auction or golf tournament. In answer to that criticism, Wagner said the organizers were fatigued.
Copies of Haakenson’s letter were distributed at the senior center last week without permission of the board’s directors. When it was discovered that the letters were circulating, board member Mel Steinke began grabbing the letters from seniors and shredding them, multiple witnesses said. Haakenson also met with Wagner Monday, and six other board members in two separate meetings, he said.
Monday, the center’s acting directors also made efforts to find and destroy McNaulty’s letter, witnesses said.
For his part, Fleming is continuing to look for employment elsewhere, he said. While many members are calling for him to return to his position, Fleming said he would only do that if the bylaws of the organization were changed, and more power was put in the hands of the membership.