Concerned by the Parks and Recreation Commission’s decision last week to lay off current Senior Center staff, move some functions to The Grove and revamp offerings at the current center, many elderly spoke up Tuesday during public comment at the City Council meeting.

At two Parks and Rec meetings last week, supporters of the Senior Center railed against what they saw as dismantling of the program, only to have commissioners vote unanimously to go ahead with the plan, so at the council meeting, several implored the council to once again take over administration of the 43-year-old center and ensure public input to find a way to save elements they're concerned will be lost under the reorganization.

Parks & Recreation Director Mike Black, backed by the commission, decided the Senior Center should generate $75,000 a biennium to keep it going, far more than current revenue generated by the program. They plan to move most activities to The Grove, next to the police station, making a “multi-generational” setting.

“I ask the City Council to intervene and restore the Senior Center to the city,” Candy Barnhill told the council during 15 minutes of public comment. “It was created to serve the older people of our community, not as a cost recovery organization.”

As a rule, the council does not respond to public comment.

Art Tetrault said, “It was an entire surprise on the senior community. It meets most of the needs of the senior community. I looked in The Grove and it’s inappropriate for seniors. It won’t work. No one will go there. I won’t go there.” He said candidates are getting ready and he wants to see three women on the Parks & Recreation commission at next year’s election. Currently, all five commissioners are male.

Jackie Bachman said, “I ask the city to clearly want to be involved in this issue and establish a ’55-plus Advisory Committee’ to create a shared vision for a very diverse community. We want to hear your discussion of how you plan to meet the needs of 55-plus citizens and include them.”

Echo Fields, Associate Professor, Sociology and Human Service at Southern Oregon University, said, “I read the performance audit (a $40,000 study of the senior center and program) and it shows a clear lack of trust in the community by Parks and Recreation. It needs repair. The community had no time to study the proposal, which was announced on a Monday, so the meeting the following day (with Parks Commission) was, shall we say, frisky? As for cost recovery, why was the Senior Center singled out when the other Parks-Rec programs don’t pay for themselves? Is the Senior Center appropriate for management under Parks and Rec?”

Will Churchill said, “It was a fiasco. Everyone who attended the Senior Center knew nothing and was completely shocked. No one knew there had been five meetings of the (Parks and Recreation ad hoc committee) and this was the last one. Their decision was already made before the sixth meeting … They cut all staff and they’d often brought it in under budget."

Claudia Ballard said, “I request that you enjoin Parks and Rec from proceeding further, until the community has had the opportunity to study it and make recommendations to the City Council on what effect it would have.”

At a Monday study session of the City Council, Maureen Battistella, Research Affiliate, Sociology and Anthropology at Southern Oregon University, said, “You are responsible for the safety net in Ashland. People are walking around starving here. Parks and Recreation does not have the expertise for housing and senior programs.”

Senior programs, she said, belong under the city’s Housing and Human Services, where direction Linda Reid has a degree in the field and is appointed, not elected.

“Their commission has expertise” specific to the area and “can collaborate to accomplish goals.”

In a press release issued Aug. 10, Parks and Recreation said the reorganization is "an effort to better serve those who are 55 and older in Ashland, and to research ways to increase revenue and ensure the program's resiliency for years to come."

—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.