Senior center in dispute

Westwego, agency seek compromise to keep funds

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Westwego city officials are raising questions about donations to the Ernest J. Tassin Senior Center being funnelled to another organization. The move was made to allow the center to spend the money on trips and gifts for seniors, Mayor Johnny Shaddinger said. Here, Joyce Carui is shown playing bingo at  the center last week..
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Westwego city officials are raising questions about donations to the Ernest J. Tassin Senior Center being funnelled to another organization. The move was made to allow the center to spend the money on trips and gifts for seniors, Mayor Johnny Shaddinger said. Here, Joyce Carui is shown playing bingo at the center last week..

Bickering about management styles and potential liability is threatening an unusual agreement between Westwego and the Jefferson Council on Aging that allows the city to receive state funding to operate and maintain its senior center.

Westwego officials and the JCOA are attempting to find a compromise that will allow the renewal of a cooperative endeavor agreement that funnels about $40,000 annually to the center. A five-year agreement finalized in 2008 expires next month.

JCOA Executive Director Al Robichaux said that the group told Westwego officials this week that they are unwilling to renew the agreement without serious changes to its parameters. Initially the JCOA wasn’t interested in renewing the agreement at all but relented after talking to city officials.

Robichaux said the JCOA believes the Westwego senior center has strayed away from the mission and “philosophy” at the parish’s 11 other centers. He said that instead of being a place where seniors can develop their independence and socialize with each other, the center has become a hotbed of disagreement and favoritism. In addition, the city hasn’t fed enough seniors through its on-site meals program, which puts state funding in jeopardy.

“It seems like there’s not an equal opportunity for the seniors to come enjoy the services,” said Robichaux, citing complaints the JCOA has received about invitation-only parties. Some of those same issues were raised to the Westwego City Council by seniors in January. “That’s not the way we run senior centers.”

He claims that Senior Center Director Ted Bergeron has done a poor job of communicating his plans for the facility to JCOA. Although the cooperative endeavor agreement grants Westwego autonomy in programming and other matters, Robichaux said the group still expects to be kept abreast of what’s happening at the facility. He added that there are concerns about Bergeron’s decision to take seniors on cruises and dinner outings and whether the JCOA might have some liability issues.

“There’s a territorial issue … They think it’s simply theirs and they can run it as they see fit,” Robichaux said. “I don’t want our organization to be involved in something like that.”

Robichaux said the city has three options: Officials can sign a new cooperative endeavor agreement clearly spelling out the changes the JCOA desires; they can decide to run the facility without state funding; or they can close the building down.

But Thursday, the roughly two dozen seniors at the center said they would be heartbroken if Bergeron left the center or if the outings they enjoy ended.

Several of them called Bergeron the best thing to happen to the center in years. Genieva Dawson said that if Bergeron leaves the center, she’s not sure if she wants to come back.

“If he’s not here, I don’t want to be here,” Dawson said. “He’s so wonderful.

Irene Verrett said that Bergeron supports and motivates the seniors, which was missing under some previous directors.

She said the outings add spice to seniors’ lives, and since they are paid for with private money, she doesn’t understand the problem.

“We enjoy our outings,” she said. “It gives us energy; it makes us feel alive.”

Westwego’s senior center has been a hotbed of discord and dissent for years. The JCOA initially allowed Westwego to take over operations because the city wasn’t happy with how the center was run by a previous director.

Bergeron was hired in 2011 after some seniors had concerns about another director. City officials also have complained about the poor quality of the food served in the meals program at the site.

Councilman Ivy Rogers, who investigated complaints at the center with Councilman Larry Warino, said that sometimes personality differences can be blown out of proportion.

He also said that he thinks that when Bergeron took the job, he was somewhat unfamiliar with all the guidelines associated with running a senior center.

But Rogers said that everywhere he goes in the city, seniors praise Bergeron and the activities at the facility.

“Maybe he didn’t cross all his T’s and dot all his I’s,” Rogers said. “But everywhere I go people love him like sliced bread.”

Mayor John Shaddinger said the city is willing to consider any changes the JCOA would like but noted that the new agreement would have to be approved by the council.

However, he stressed that even if the JCOA decides to end its partnership with the city, Westwego’s seniors will still go to the center.

Shaddinger noted that Westwego already spends nearly $200,000 on the center annually.

“No matter what, this center will continue to thrive. It will continue to operate,” said Shaddinger, adding that the city never violated any rules included in the previous agreement. “We’re now optimistic, and we’re waiting to see what they’re going to require.”