Senior Center Study Committee implodes

I attended my first meeting of the Senior Center Study Committee (SCSC) this morning at the library, and witnessed a virtual implosion of the group.

I am following this issue because I spoke against the 2012 proposal at annual Town Meeting and was interested in following the new effort to see if the needs of seniors have changed enough to justify the expense of a new facility.

The SCSC was formed by the Board of Selectmen (BoS) to evaluate options to either relocate or renovate the existing Senior Center which is located on Audubon Hill in South Acton. The town currently gets to use the existing facility for free, but many seniors believe that the center is too small and a new one should be built. This belief is partly based on projected increases in the senior population in Acton. The Committee also claims that the existing center's space is inadequate and that there is limited space for parking and that many programs are oversubscribed.

Two previous attempts to construct a new facility for seniors, or a new community center which would serve both seniors and members of the general public, have failed at Town Meeting.

I arrived a few minutes late to the meeting but didn't miss the fireworks. Several speakers expressed strong support for a new senior center and wanting to better organize seniors in town to advocate for their needs. But it became apparent that another group had been forming in town to push for a combined senior/community center, an approach that was roundly rejected by members of the SCSC, several of whom said they would resign from the SCSC if the Committee's charge were changed to include a community center.

Selectman Franny Osman, who is the BoS's liaison to the SCSC and is also a member of the SCSC, said her attempt to talk to Selectman Janet Adachi and to speak with members of the community center effort were merely to try to find common ground. She stated repeatedly that the two groups' goals did not seem far apart and that if both efforts were to be combined, she thought the chance for passage at Town Meeting would improve. (Osman made it a point to mention that she talked only to Adachi so as not to violate Open Meeting Laws by discussing a matter before the BoS with a quorum of members.)

Other members of the SCSC disagreed. Several members were active in previous versions of the committee, only to see the efforts fail at Town Meeting. Several comments were made that including a community center was simply divisive, it didn't adequately address seniors' needs for their own space, and that advocates to build a community center were evidently not strong or serious enough to do so on their own, hence their attempt to piggyback the efforts by the SCSC. Almost everyone who spoke was against any attempt to broaden the Committee's charge to include a community center.

The meeting then focused on whether the SCSC should continue to prepare for their scheduled September 28th BoS meeting in which they were to present their progress and make recommendations using research done by an architectural firm. After some discussion, the Committee voted to halt all work. They decided that instead of making a formal presentation at the BoS meeting, they would write a letter detailing the progress to date and ask the Selectmen to clarify their charge. The only vote against this plan was by Selectman Osman, who then reconsidered and voted with the majority to make it unanimous.

Member Dean Charter said that spending more money on the architectural firm at this point would be a waste of money, and that it might be better if all work was halted, and whatever money saved could be returned to the town's general fund.

Up to this point, the SCSC had decided to pursue a new building to include other town departments like Human Services, Nursing, the Veteran's Service Officer, and the Community Resource Coordinator. They also had chosen the "Arlington Street property" as the site for a new Senior Center and was scheduled to request design funds at April's annual Town Meeting.

Several members of the SCSC expressed strong frustration with what they saw as mixed messages or even sabotage by individual Board of Selectmen members, with some saying they no longer "trusted" the BoS.

SCSC Chair Chris Hamilton then announced that because of work commitments, he would have to resign as Chair effective immediately, and that the next SCSC meeting on September 11, 2015 would have electing a new Chair on the agenda.

It was clear from the meeting that the SCSC believes in having a Senior Center that houses other town departments but does not serve the larger community, and that if the Selectmen do not agree with this vision, they need to start the process over again from scratch.