The first few days on the job were anything but smooth for one of the town’s newest employees, Joanne Mello. Hired as Bristol’s first-ever Coordinator of Senior Services, Ms. Mello found she had no office, desk, phone, computer or a welcoming environment.
That’s because Ms. Mello was stepping into a simmering feud between the Town of Bristol and the Benjamin Church Senior Center, which began last spring and continues today.
When Town Administrator Steven Contente questioned the dual roles of senior center director Maria Ursini (managing both the senior center and a substance abuse coalition), he set in motion of series of events still rolling today. Ms. Ursini was eventually arrested, stopped working for the senior center and settled the case with the town a month ago.
Concurrently, Mr. Contente and the Bristol Town Council pulled funding for the senior center director position, rewrote town ordinances, and created a new position — the aforementioned coordinator of senior services.
The new coordinator is an employee of the Bristol Recreation Department, reporting to Director Walter Burke, and charged with coordinating and managing senior services throughout town.
However, that change in roles has folks at the private, nonprofit Benjamin Church Senior Center Inc. frustrated, miffed and mistrustful of the town and its leadership. At the core of the dispute is disagreement over who works for whom.
Do senior center employees works for the Benjamin Church nonprofit, or do they work for the town? It depends on who you ask.
Contente says they are town employees
The town administrator has no doubt that the four people working at the senior center are town employees. In his mind, that is clear.
“They are all town employees. They get checks from the Town of Bristol, the clerk, Donna Wilson, is in the state pension system … these are town employees,” Mr. Contente said.
He is referring to Ms. Wilson, who was deputy to the director, Ms. Ursini, and has since taken over many of the important leadership duties at the center, as well as a another employee who coordinates a daily meals program, and a bus driver who provides transportation to senior citizens.
Mr. Contente’s view today is different than when he first waded into the issue last year. In interviews last summer, he said the former director and her colleagues were hired by and worked for the Benjamin Church Senior Center, which is a separate organization, not an arm of the Town of Bristol.
But as he investigated it more, Mr. Contente felt more strongly these are town employees — or should be. Since the town pays them, it has liability for their actions, conduct and personnel issues.
Senior center board disagrees
To understand the senior center’s perspective, it helps to understand who’s who and what’s what. The Benjamin Church House — the big, yellow house at the corner of Hope Street and Chestnut Street, at the start of the Fourth of July Parade route — is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is owned by the Benjamin Church Trust, which gave it to the Bristol Housing Authority, as long as it remains dedicated to senior services.
The housing authority leases the property to Benjamin Church Senior Center Inc. to manage the facility for the benefit of senior citizens. That relationship has existed for 45 years, and the nonprofit group has organized exercise classes, health workshops, informational programs, card games, meals and more at the facility. The nonprofit has also maintained the building, including improvements and repairs, largely with funding from the Benjamin Church Trust and separate grants.
The Town of Bristol and the nonprofit’s board of directors have had an agreement throughout those 45 years, where the nonprofit manages the facility and services, and the town pays the operating fees and salaries and benefits for the personnel.
Members of the senior center board of directors adamantly believe the director and her staff all work for them.
“The town has never taken any interest in this place, unless it’s an election year,” said board president Maria Doherty.
From the board’s perspective, the four employees (including the vacant director’s position) are all employees of the nonprofit, which has historically hired the director, who has hired the other staff. They believe the town has failed to honor their agreement and is leaving a critical position unstaffed.
“In our eyes, we have an open position,” Ms. Doherty said.
Said board treasurer Olivia Germano, “We no longer have a director, and our bylaws state that we have to have a director.”
Failure to communicate
The Benjamin Church board leaders are highly critical of the town for repeatedly excluding them in recent months. While their director’s role was publicly questioned and scrutinized, when she was arrested and prosecuted, and when the town re-wrote town code and created an entirely new position, they say the town ignored them.
“We have been told almost nothing,” Ms. Germano said. “This was all done quietly, behind closed doors.”
“We were never involved in anything,” Ms. Doherty said. “When push came to shove, the town never communicated with or involved the board.”
Ms. Germano added, “The told us ‘nothing is going to change’ … but everything has changed.”
Caught in the middle is the town’s new hire, Ms. Mello, who reported to work expecting to take over the office once occupied by Maria Ursini, only to find it was no longer available. “I knew there would be obstacles, some need to win people over, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I encountered,” Ms. Mello said.
During an interview in the former director’s office earlier this week, Ms. Germano and Ms. Doherty made it clear the office belongs to the Benjamin Church Senior Center and its employees and volunteers. Ms. Mello is not one of them.
“We’ll work with her,” Ms. Doherty said, “but she does not work for us, she does not work for the senior center, she’s not part of this nonprofit.” The first-floor corner office still looks like it belongs to Ms. Ursini. Her photos and artwork hang on the walls and behind the desk.
Ms. Mello still visits the senior center several times per week, especially during the lunch hour, and they eventually gave her another office to use. But she said things were difficult at first.
“It was challenging,” she said. “I’ve kind of been in flux for the first few weeks … I was told I could not use the office, that it belonged to them. So I had no desk, no computer, no files … So I spent a lot of time observing and learning.”
Ms. Mello believes she needs to be visible at Benjamin Church, because she has responsibility for the employees working there. Her bosses, as well as her job description, tell her she supervises those three other employees.
“If I’m going to work with them, I need to be there,” she said.
Though she diplomatically acknowledged all the tension in her first few days, Ms. Mello said things are slowly getting better. They have allowed her to use a different office at Benjamin Church, and she now has an office at the Bristol community center. She expects to spend about 80 percent of her time at the community center, and about 20 percent at Benjamin Church.
The next step?
While Ms. Mello begins work on how to coordinate and expand senior services throughout town, the senior center and Town of Bristol remain at odds. They both believe senior center employees work for them, and one side believes the other has reneged on an agreement.
“We have never broken any partnership with the town. We’ve done this for 45 years, and we’re not going to stop,” Ms. Doherty said.
“The town is very unclear in their role. We know what our role is. We’re here for the seniors of Bristol … This battle is a waste of time. We’d rather be developing new programs for our seniors. It’s frustrating.”
The town and senior center leaders are expected to meet next week to talk about their differences.
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