Los Angeles Times

Senior center board dissects audit

Board members and staff of the Costa Mesa Senior Center met Tuesday morning to formally discuss a recently released independent audit forecasting a "fiscal crisis" at the facility.

After some 90 minutes of discussion, the board voted to formalize in writing the varied sentiment toward the audit's 15 recommendations. Some members were skeptical of the findings, alleging that the document's suggested changes for the senior center were already in place, such as regular auditing and direction for board members on the rules of the Brown Act, the state's open-meetings law.

"Basically, this report is what the city wants," said Executive Director Aviva Goelman. "It is not reflecting on the things that we say we already do."

The council last year approved the $26,500 audit. The city made the document public Jan. 7.

Costa Mesa-based Management Partners conducted the investigation over several months by reviewing paperwork and conducting 26 interviews.

The audit predicts that the senior center — an independent nonprofit corporation since 1987 that serves 300 to 400 seniors daily — will run out of money in its general fund by June.

Costa Mesa annually grants the West 19th Street facility $240,000. This fiscal year, the center also received an estimated $535,570 worth of in-kind services from the city.

Goelman said that in addition to the center undergoing regular auditing, its records are public. Furthermore, board members receive Brown Act information in their packets and if they seek more information, they can research the law online, she said.

Vice President Joan Weeks said that despite affirmation from Costa Mesa's city attorney years ago that the senior center board was under the purview of the Brown Act, she wasn't convinced.

"I didn't think what we did in the past answered our questions to my satisfaction," Weeks said, adding that she will consult another attorney on the matter.

Board member David Stiller said Brown Act compliance training could do the board some good.

"I think it's our obligation to appear to be as open as possible," he said. "We have nothing to lose by being open — absolutely nothing to lose — and possibly goodwill to gain."

The audit also recommended gaining accreditation from the National Council on Aging and conducting a community survey to gauge senior citizens' needs.

Goelman and Weeks questioned who would pay for such a survey.

"We don't have the staff," Weeks said, "and I don't think our staff has the professional knowledge to do a survey."

Goelman added that accreditation from the council is expensive.

She said she was open to some of the audit's other suggestions, including an annual evaluation of her job as executive director and a description of her role, which currently doesn't exist.

Goelman said she wasn't keen on following through on an audit recommendation to establish written procedures for addressing complaints.

The seniors know there is a green box downstairs to submit concerns, she said, and those submissions are reviewed by an advisory committee. Goelman said she also reviews the complaints.

Board member Stella Adkins said staff members have belittled the grievances dropped in the box, calling them "petty complaints."

"And that was the end of it," she said.

Board member Kathleen Eric suggested having an ombudsman who's not on staff. The senior center needs "somebody's who's impartial, 'cause we all know about the green box."


Audit aftermath

Several attendees were critical of recent news media coverage on the audit, saying that negative publicity will affect the senior center's fundraising efforts.

Others complained that they were never interviewed regarding the audit or were disappointed to read for the first time in the Pilot that two board members — Kathleen Eric and Ernie Feeney — were resigning.

"Why didn't the city give the audit to the board and Aviva before the news release and the Pilot's story?" Weeks asked.

City CEO Tom Hatch, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said the audit's delivery was delayed because of the busy December holiday season. At that time, the document was also in a draft form and not yet finalized, he said.

He acknowledged a lack of communication between his staff and the senior center's.

"I think we have some real challenges when we can't work together to do the best we can for the seniors at a basic level," Hatch said.

In the coming weeks, the council may meet publicly with the senior center board to discuss the audit, he added.

Paul Flanagan, executive committee secretary, said for five year, it's been a "sad state" of affairs at the center.

"We find ourselves in an increasingly adversarial position with the City Council," he said. Furthermore, there's been some "low-grade guerrilla warfare" waged upon the center by segments of the Costa Mesa populace, he said.

"There is a very clear element of anger and great discontentment at several levels in the city," Stiller added. "And it begins right at the top with some of the personalities on the City Council and continues down through some of the committees that the City Council has appointed and which are in operation now."

Treasurer Ron Frankiewicz said despite such sentiment, "We're here for the seniors, to meet the needs of the seniors no matter what they are. To that end, we need to have cooperation with the city."

Trudy Ohlig-Hall, a former director at the Mesa Water District, said people want to help seniors but that the center's board "is short on policies."

"The board is a mess," she said. "You don't work together. You don't follow policies."

Adkins urged the board to be "more open. We need to be more friendly to our seniors. I hear rumors and I hear comments that staff are being rude to our seniors, and the seniors aren't coming back."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times