The Oak Bluffs Council on Aging (COA) board meeting held August 28 was slightly delayed. The Thursday morning exercise class in the meeting room had gone long, and it took a while for the steady stream of sweating and, for the most part smiling, endorphin-charged seniors to exit.
As the room cleared, Leo Gagnon, president of the Friends of the Council on Aging (FCOA), a nonprofit corporation that is the fundraising arm for the COA, talked about an open house held on August 13 to mark a change in direction for the organization that had been at the center or controversy.
“I introduced it as the new senior center,” he said. “We want to get rid of the old and bring in the new. You should have seen this place. It was packed. Local merchants contributed prizes and every 15 minutes we rang a bell and gave out a door prize.”
Mr. Gagnon said the many contributions from local merchants included a 32-inch flat screen television from Crane Appliance.
“We also had live entertainment from the Princess Poo-Poo-Ly band. They’re an Island band of 16 people playing ukuleles. They were terrific. They played for over 90 minutes. A lot of people were singing along. There were four guys sitting up front, who are barely able to walk, and they were standing and stomping their feet and their canes. Sandra from the Vineyard Haven COA said, ‘This place rocks!,” Mr. Gagnon said, grinning.
The picture Mr. Gagnon described is in marked contrast to the COA of a few months ago when the organization was rocking with a different kind of energy. The 2014 winter of discontent involved police and forensic accounting investigations, heated accusations, and divisive infighting, which culminated in the resignation of former director Roger Wey, as of June 30. While the investigations found no criminal wrongdoing, a history of sloppy accounting and years of rancorous relations among COA staff came to light. In a six page report, town administrator Robert Whritenour wrote that the long-standing rift between associate directorRose Cogliano and Mr. Wey yielded “charges and counter charges of harassment” dating back to 2006, which divided the COA membership into opposing “camps.”
In his June 19 memo to the selectmen, Mr. Whritenour recommended a reorganization of the COA — eliminating the director and assistant director positions and creating a COA administrator and a program director, while making the board the engine that drives COA.
“Roger is moving on and we’re moving on and that’s the way it should be,” Walter Vail, selectman and COA board member told The Times following the August 28 board meeting.
Mr. Vail was chairman of the selectmen when on the advice of town counsel an investigation began into COA accounting practices and procedures. Although the matter could have been handled in closed executive session, Mr. Vail elected to make the proceedings public. He became a lightning rod for criticism by Mr. Wey’s supporters, who were always in full throat at selectmen’s meetings, but he stuck by his decision.
“There are only a few people who are still unhappy,” Mr. Vail said. “We had 135 people show up at the open house. Leo did a great job. Everybody had a good time. I think the message is pretty clear.”
“The board needs to be a managing partner of the COA,” Mr. Blythe said in an earlier conversation with the Times. “If you’re going to be a good board member you have to listen to both sides before you make a judgement.”
At the recent board meeting, some topics the board discussed included a new photography class starting in September, upcoming bus trips, a trip to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute without a bus, an October dental clinic, and a generous $1,500 gift from the Cottagers Association.
“They give to a lot of organizations,” Mr. Gagnon said. “The COA received the most. I never expected that kind of check.”
“I already have a call into Arthur to make sure it’s done properly with the town,” Ms. Cogliano said, adding that the money will be put in account for fuel assistance.
“People need to know they can apply,” outreach coordinator Susan Von Steiger said. “I’m sure Arthur will be very discreet.”
In other business, the board discussed the need for a new projector so movie night can become a regular event, recruiting a high school student or technologically savvy person to give computer classes, and how to acquire the new computers on which to be taught.
Although much of the current technology accessible at the COA is relatively ancient, Mr. Gagnon said the Oak Bluffs COA is the only place on Island where seniors can schedule a Skype session with a live person from the Social Security Administration. He then floated the idea for a Karaoke machine for a regular Karaoke night, to widely varying degrees of enthusiasm from the board.
Later, Mr. Gagnon spoke excitedly about a new program beginning in the fall, “A Matter of Balance,” which teaches seniors how to navigate the fear of falling through physical and mental exercise. He also said the board was looking to expand the popular line dancing classes given in the summer to a year-round activity.
Board member Abraham Seiman told the members that the bridge club was considering a move back to the COA from its self imposed exile. The club had separated from the COA in protest over Mr. Wey’s dismissal. “They left because of all the nonsense,” Mr. Gagnon said.
Following the meeting, Mr. Gagnon had high praise for Ms. Cogliano. “Rose turned this place around,” he said. “It’s been difficult, at best, but this place is much better than it used to be. There’s no more fighting. It’s a happy place to come now.”