Public Watchdog.org

Has Senior Center Made Park District A “House Divided”?

01.19.12

We normally don’t comment on what other local blogs are publishing, if for no other reason that we don’t know of any other local blog besides Ken Butterly’s “Butterly On Senior Issues.”  

But his post dated 01/18/12 so clearly demonstrates just how dysfunctional and perverse the operation of the Park Ridge Park District’s Senior Center may have become that it virtually demands discussion here.

For those unaware of Butterly’s blog, it’s written by a Senior Center member who is part of what appears to be a small but vocal faction of that facility’s roughly 800-person membership.  That faction acts and sounds as if it believes that the Senior Center was officially handed over to private corporation Park Ridge Senior Services, Inc. (“SSI” or “Seniors Inc.”, our preference) around 30 years ago, but with some kind of understanding that the Park District (a/k/a, the taxpayers) would nevertheless still foot the bill.

Butterly’s post criticizes an anticipated request at tonight’s Park Board meeting by vice-president Rick Biagi that a $300,000+ bequest by the late Betty Kemnitz to “the Senior Center” be included as revenue in the District’s 2012-13 budget.  Butterly asserts that “the Kemnitz bequest money are [sic] dollars presently in the hands of Senior Services, Inc., the legal and financial arm of the Senior Center membership.”

Think about that for a minute: Seniors Inc. is the legal and financial arm of the Senior Center membership. 

Assuming that Mr. Butterly isn’t talking through his hat, how did the Park District get to the point where users of one of its facilities have a private corporation serving as their “legal and financial arm” seeking to keep control of that facility away from the Park District?

Remember, folks, that the Senior Center is a building owned by the Park District (i.e., the taxpayers).  For at least the past six years the Park District (i.e., the taxpayers) has poured almost $1 million of public funds into subsidizing the operations of that facility because Seniors Inc.’s leadership claims that the Center’s members shouldn’t have to pay more than the $45/year “dues” currently charged by the Park District – even as Seniors Inc. sits on a private treasury of over $240,000.

We’ve addressed this situation in several posts since December 2010, including those of  12/28/1112/12/1108/02/11 and 07/29/11.

But apparently even $160,000/year in taxpayer subsidies isn’t enough for Butterly and his fellow Seniors Inc. members.  Despite acknowledging that the Kemnitz bequest “was made to the Park Ridge Senior Center,” he seems to argue that it effectively belongs to Seniors Inc., which he describes as having “run” the Senior Center until January 2011, and which currently holds those funds as the result of conduct by the “trustee” of that bequest.

And who might be the “trustee” of that bequest who put the funds in the hands of Seniors Inc. in the first place?

If you guessed former Senior Center supervisor Teresa Grodsky – until 01/01/12, a Park District employee bound by the well-established legal duty of loyalty to her employer and its taxpayers – you’d be right.

From information recently revealed through Biagi’s whistle-blowing about Grodsky’s previously secret “retirement” deal – engineered by the District’s Exec. Director, Gayle Mountcastle, and apparently approved in secret by the Park Board, including Biagi – it looks and sounds as if Grodsky’s unauthorized handing over of the Kenmitz bequest to Seniors Inc. was one of several reasons why she “retired.”  

But in all fairness to Grodsky, her shall-we-say divided loyalty to the Park District wasn’t a solo act. 

That’s because, as also was disclosed by Biagi, she may have been assisted in her conflicted activities by Park Board member Stephen Vile, who also is a member of…wait for it…the Senior Center.  Vile himself seems to have had some difficulty deciding whether his loyalty belongs with the Park District, to which he swore his oath of office in May 2009, or to Seniors Inc, a conflict displayed in some e-mails that Biagi shared with the Herald-Advocate, the Journal, Butterly’s blog, and this blog as part of his whistle-blowing.   

For example, in an e-mail to Grodsky on 05/03/11, Vile (clearly speaking as a Seniors Inc. member rather than a Park Board member) observes that “we’ll be able to do [nothing] other than withhold any donations to the park board” [emphasis added].  And in a 05/15/11 “for your eyes only” one to Grodsky, Vile refers to Seniors Inc. as “we” and “our” when he writes: “We have tentetively [sic] agreed to relinquish our claims for previous investments” in the Senior Center.

Vile’s and Grodsky’s ambivalence is not just of recent vintage, either: it dates back almost a year earlier, as can be seen from a Grodsky e-mail exchange with Vile on 08/23/10, in which they both appear to be referring to Seniors Inc. as “we,” “our” and “us” while referring to the Park District or Park Board as “they’re,” “they” and “their.”

Not surprisingly, Butterly and Seniors Inc. are beating up on Biagi for outing both Grodsky and Vile.  And we wouldn’t be surprised if Biagi feels a bit of a chill over at the Maine Leisure Center (Park District HQ) when he arrives for tonight’s meeting, since neither Mountcastle nor his fellow Board members have expressed any public support so far for Biagi’s candor.  Which is not unexpected, considering how badly the District botched the Senior Center issue even before it totally mishandled the Grodsky “retirement.”

This bizarre saga, however, does provide several object lessons for how not to run a Park District (or any other branch of local government, for that matter), including:

(a) how the Park District allowed private corporation Seniors Inc. to effectively take over the Senior Center for its semi-private clubhouse;

(b) how Seniors Inc. took that opportunity to bleed the taxpayers, with the District’s acquiescence, and then shamelessly claim to be disrespected by the District when it wouldn’t agree to continue that status quo;

(c) how a trusted long-term employee (Grodsky) and a sworn elected official (Vile) seem to have lost track of their duty to all the District’s taxpayers, not just to 800 Senior Center members; and

(d) how a sworn appointed official/employee (Mountcastle) and sworn elected officials (the Park Board members) could somehow think that giving Grodsky a sweetheart “retirement” deal at the taxpayers’ expense, and then trying to keep it secret from the public, was somehow in the public’s best interest.

But perhaps the most notable lesson provided by this mess is how a “house” – in this case the Park District – can so easily become divided against itself when special interests combine with bad judgment and secrecy.  Hopefully, the folks who run the Park District for us taxpayers will learn a valuable lesson from this perverse experience.

Starting tonight.

To read or post comments, click on title.

7 comments so far

What responsibility to you take? You were a Commissioner at one time. You are an attorney by trade. This is not a one or two year issue. Are you going to deflect your responsibility by saying there was a contract between the two entities when you were there? You have not communicated who Grodsky was politically connected too, either. Don’t give us these criticisms of the Park District and try and come off as a pious outsider. I am really disappointed in the perspective you took in this blog post. You are not reporting the facts here. You are reporting your perspective which is skewed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The editor of this blog must be accountable for every one of his votes and every aspect of his oversight – or lack thereof – as to everything that happened at the Park District on his watch: May 1997 through April 2005.

This clearly wasn’t/isn’t “a one or two year issue,” although during my eight years in office I do not recall: (a) any contract between Seniors Inc. and the PRPD even being discussed; (b) the existence of private corporation Seniors Inc. even being discussed (all we ever heard about was a generic “the seniors”); (c) six figure – or any significant amount of – annual operating losses. Which is why this blog has reacted to this Senior Center contract and operating loss issue the way it has.

Tell us what fact – not opinion, but fact – reported here is incorrect? Tell us what relevant fact(s) of this whole mess has/have not been reported? When you can cite any, with at least the same degree of documentation we have provided, come back and we will be happy to discuss further.

There’s nothing “pious” about any of this. It’s just bad policy, executed with bad practices and bad judgment, and then concealed from the public until after it became a done deal.

Alright, here are the facts. Please feel free to expound on them.

As a Commissioner, you approved capital budgets and capital expenditures. Capital expenditures are treated differently in ‘Fund’ accounting than in non governmental accounting.

So you, during your tenure as a Commissioner you approved capital budgets annually. Some of those items included improvements in the Senior Center. Can you remember which ones? I bet you can’t.

In a normal business, those expenditures would have depreciation expense associated with them. In Fund accounting, the purchase of the asset is run through a capital account. The senior center would not have absorbed those depreciation expenses for those capital expenditures, thereby making the Senior Center operations look better than how it was during your tenure.

Next, the Senior Center holds events for the members. The way the senior center had run its business for over twenty years, those events barely covered the costs of the events, with nothing to cover the salaries of the senior center. This was partially why they had huge annual losses. They didn’t charge an administrative fee to cover the fixed expenses.

Next, the salaries of certain individuals were not charged to the Senior Center that worked at the Senior Center, they were charged as an administrative overhead cost. It wasn’t until your term was long over, that those salaries were moved over to where they appropriately belong.

You want to refute my comment, go ahead. I am interested in how you view your actions as a Commissioner. You are going to say that my comments are not specific enough. Well, as you like to call your commentators “Zippy”, your move next “PAL”!!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: I recall approving no capital improvements to the Senior Center during my 8 years on the Park Board, although I believe I may have been credited (on a plaque) for certain improvements to the Senior Center (the stage?) simply because they were completed during my term, even though they were approved by a prior board.

As for your other comments, you attempt to pass off a whole lot of conclusions as “facts” with no documentation or even any resource references. Nevertheless, I do recall pushing for fully-loaded cost structures for all facilities and activities, an initiative that began near the end of my tenure but was not implemented in any meaningful way until afterward – which would suggest that your comments about they way costs were charged off is fundamentally correct.

Now, how does any of this relate to the substance of this post, Zip?

The agreement with Senior Services, Inc. was renewed every three years with the then-current Board’s approval, but it apparently was presented as a pro forma, no-big-deal thing like passing the prevailing wage ordinance or buying paper towels. On those rare occasions there was a minor attempt to question the subsidy Lange would get all trembly-lipped and teary-eyed, and the board would subside. In earlier days the subsidy was much less because the shortfall between ever-escalating costs and always-small revenues was not as great; also because the City ponied up $30K. Two good reasons why you might have missed it while on the Board. But when you impute naughty motives to the executive director in her handling of the resignation, you are unfair and unwise. Any HR secretary would grasp that the decision was made, as it often is in both public and private sector partings, to allow the polite “resignation” of a long-time employee to limit the negative rffect on the customers who liked the employee (in this case, many with blood pressure issues) and to avert the potentially costly ugliness of a for-cause termination of a protected class employee. The fact that the District has insurance for such lawsuits would only compensate for the actual dollars awarded, not for the ongoing turmoil and loss of productivity already engendered by the Senior Services, Inc. crew and their confederates on the staff and the board.
You don’t care how many hostages are killed as long as the bank robber is taken out, so I don’t expect you to buy this argument, but other more businesslike readers may get a clue. It was exactly one year from the non-signing of the last Agreement to installing a clean, new operation, despite one of the most entrenched, malevolent, hydra-headed assaults on the public trust seen anywhere. The current Park Board deserves congratulations, and so does its executive director.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t recall one discussion of subsidies to the Senior Center during my 8 years on the Board. Whether that is accurate or not would likely require minutes from the meetings at which what you describe allegedly occurred.

There was no imputation of “naughty motives” to the Grodsky deal, just bad judgment in the decision and dishonesty in the attempts to keep it secret. Moreover, once it becomes known that an employer – either in the public or the private sector – will roll over and pay “hush money” rather than go toe-to-toe with a disgruntled or for-cause terminable employee just becauese he/she barks, that employer has given the keys to the asylum to the inmates.

Which is why it remains (as we understand it) the official policy of the U.S.Gov’t not to negotiate with terrorists, which is what every competent businessman also knows. If the ED made the correct decision on Grodsky, then she should have had the courage of her convictions to just say “No” to giving her a sweetheart severance package that she then shrouded in secrecy. Had the Park Board told Seniors Inc. to pound sand “exactly one year from the non-signing of the last Agreement” this debacle would have been resolved exactly one year and one day ago.

But Ray O and a cowardly board tried to mollify Seniors Inc., and Gayle M and an only slightly less-cowardly board chose to play footsie with Grodsky and Seniors Inc. And they got exactly what they deserved.

In answer to the question posed in your headline:
No.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Let’s hope so.

Do you think no political deals should ever be cut for the sake of preserving peace? Should the strictest letter of the law always be followed?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Are you in favor of cutting “political deals…for the sake of preserving peace”?

Ever hear of Neville Chamberlain, “appeasement,” or Munich? How well did that work out?

As Benjamin Franklin said: “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither.” Just substitute “peace” for “security.”

If that sweetheart “retirement” deal the Park District engineered for Ms. Grodsky was such a bargain for the taxpayers instead of a gutless waste of taxpayer money, why did the Executive Director and Park Board keep it a secret until Commissioner Biagi finally blew the whistle on it?

I apologize for bashing you or your record as a Commissioner. I misinterpreted a couple of items that you wrote. I clarified with a couple of individuals that understand the inter workings of the Park District about what you meant. I read your post first thing this morning and over reacted. I should have sought clarification first and read your blog post more than once. My fault, my bad. I sincerely apologize.

I think there are a majority of good Commissioners on this Board and that the Park District is headed in the right direction. We may disagree on that topic, but that is my opinion.

EDITOR’S NOTE: No apologies necessary. As we have previously written, if the editor of this blog screwed up while serving as a public official, he should be held accountable for it.

Whether there is “a majority of good Commissioners on this Board” and whether “the Park District is headed in the right direction” still remains to be seen, in our opinion. We would hope that’s the case, and there are some signs. But they sure didn’t cover themselves with glory by how they handled this Senior Center matter or the Grodsky “retirement.” And trying to hide the latter from the taxpayers is reprehensible.

You are goofy. Since when does every midlevel personnel decision and the terms thereof get spread around town for a public opinion-fest? Why single out this one? There was no “hiding” in the sense you are implying. At all. (But so much for not impugning the motives of the executive director or Board.) It seems to me the Commissioner Biagi outed this deal because without doing so it would have been difficult to call to account the misbehavior of another board member, Commissioner Vile. Biagi was not trying to make the executive director look bad, or his fellow board members, either. Some felt the executive director was making a good call and others did not, but there was no implication of sneakiness or self-servingness that you seem to be ascribing to them now. Nobody thinks Biagi did this to make a name for himself. And nobody thinks the non-disclosers abstained to cover their behinds — except you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every proponent of the Culture of Secrecy thinks those who want transparency are “goofy,” so your comment is predictable.

This wasn’t a “midlevel personnel decision” but a supervisory termination/”retirement” decision that became notable because the ED apparently chose to give a sweetheart severance package to an employee who could have been terminated for cause – and then contrived a totally bogus story, aided and abetted by the Board, to conceal those facts and Commmissioner Vile’s misconduct.

Biagi didn’t need to try “to make the executive director look bad, or his fellow board members, either”: they did that well enough on their own.



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