Some say the agency has serious management problems; others express confidence in the agency's governing board and its executive director, Marguerite Carlson.
Douglas County Senior Services is either a unique agency dealing effectively with vital needs of elderly people or a troubled organization hampered by a power-hungry executive director and an inattentive board of directors.
The only certainty is that opinion is running strong about this nonprofit, taxpayer-supported agency.
Ed Dutton, chairman of the Douglas County-Lawrence Advocacy Council on Aging, said DCSS has serious management problems.
"That agency in some way has a curse on it," Dutton said. "We seem to have a problem with our directors. I put the blame and the criticism on the board of directors for being too absentee and not fulfilling their responsibilities."
Current and former members of the DCSS board of directors, who asked not to be identified, said the board's passive approach had damaged senior services.
Bill Salome, chairman of DCSS' board of directors, expressed full confidence in his 17-member board and the executive director, Marguerite Carlson.
"I'm really impressed," he said. "We have a very active and attentive board that makes sure senior services works for this county. I think Marguerite is an excellent chief executive."
DCSS' history dates 25 years. The agency's mission is to create opportunities for Douglas County residents 60 years and older to remain independent and active in their homes and communities.
The organization operates transportation, prepared meals, recreation and education, day care and community service programs.
More than 70 percent of its budget comes from government sources. DCSS is seeking a $17,000 budget increase in 1998 from the Douglas County Commission, the organization's biggest benefactor. That would push the county's annual contribution to DCSS' operating budget to $432,000.
As shifting demographics create a larger population of seniors in Douglas County, there has been sparse public dialogue about DCSS' future role.
For better or worse
Interviews with more than two dozen people connected with the agency shed light on the current state of affairs.
When Carlson was hired as executive director in November 1994, she vowed to stabilize the staff and budget.
"We have a better board, a better qualified staff than when I came here," Carlson said. "We have a better handle on our financial situation."
Some observers say the past couple years at 745 Vt. have been anything but calm.
In October 1995, Carlson fired Martin Shupert, DCSS transportation director, without warning in his front yard before visiting in-laws. Shupert fought and won an unemployment benefits case against DCSS.
A civil lawsuit filed by former staff member Mark Strand, who was fired in July 1996 by Carlson, is pending against DCSS. The plaintiff seeks in excess of $50,000 in damages, alleging wrongful termination.
In October 1996, Carlson gave a black employee a watermelon-decorated balloon. The employee, Margie Samuel, filed a race-based complaint against Carlson with the Lawrence Human Relations Commission. That case has not been resolved.
Carlson said she was aware of the stereotypical implications of comments about blacks and watermelon.
Fire in the hull
The DCSS board of directors and Carlson instituted a personnel policy last year that has come under fire. Critics believe the policy was intended to simply make it easier for the executive director to fire employees.
Jack Baur, who resigned from the DCSS board in protest of the new policy, said the policy stifled the exchange of ideas and created an environment that inhibited teamwork.
"It's the kind of policy that discourages good applicants," said Baur, a former Kansas University professor who taught industrial sociology courses.
Margo Gordon, who attends DCSS board meetings on behalf of the Jayhawk Area Agency on Aging, said the new personnel policy also damaged staff morale.
"I think that is very detrimental to the effective operation of the agency," she said. "They're all scared. Who wouldn't be?"
Turnover of managerial staff in DCSS' five programs has been significant. In less than three years under Carlson, four programs have had three directors each and the other program has had two directors.
The recent decision at a special meeting of the board of directors to cut the center's Adult Day Program from five days a week to four days on Aug. 1 continues to evoke unrest. Three full-time employees were told they could apply for part-time positions -- their old jobs, minus salary and benefits.
David Born, a member of the program's advisory panel, is among the most vocal supporters of that program. He said keeping people out of nursing homes must be a primary objective of senior service activities.
"Cutting the Adult Day Program doesn't accomplish that," Born said.
Change in the Adult Day Program appears to have been in response to the decline in enrollment and mid-year budget problems at DCSS.
This follows a year in which $22,000 from the DCSS reserve fund was used to cover a budget shortfall, reducing the organization's rainy-day account to a two-month reserve.
Oversight of DCSS operations has been called into question.
There has been harsh criticism behind the scenes of the DCSS board. Detractors say too many members weren't personally aware of senior services operations.
Beverly Manuel Pardue, a volunteer at DCSS, said she visits the agency's headquarters an average of once a week. She said she had never observed a DCSS board member either volunteering or observing Adult Day Program operations in the building.
Salome, the current board chair, said he relied on the executive director and other board members for information about DCSS.
"I talk to board members principally," he said.
Grant Goodman, who joined the board this year, said he abstained from the vote to cut the Adult Day Program because he didn't think he had enough information to make a decision. He hadn't been given the ADP advisory board's report opposing the reduction.
"The report came to us after the fact," he said. "That might have had some effect on my ability to make a decision."
Communication channels between rank-and-file staff and the board of directors have apparently become so choked that DCSS staff secretly contacted board members to make their voices heard.
The Douglas County Commission, which this year allocated $415,000 to DCSS, traditionally has avoided scrutiny that might be interpreted as micromanagement of the agency.
"We do, at budget time, try to make sure that money is responsibly spent," said County Administrator Craig Weinaug. "In that role, we don't try to second guess those agencies on a day-to-day basis."
The city of Lawrence provides DCSS rent-free building space, the equivalent of $108,000 annually.
The number of elderly in the Lawrence area is growing. From 1990-96, the number of folks age 65 or older in Douglas County increased by 1,125, or 15 percent.
Goodman said the community should rally in support of the senior service agency. The focus should be on the people served by the organization, he said.
"I feel very strongly about the services that the center offers," he said. "As a senior citizen, it serves a great need."