Seniors bring lawsuit against senior center nonprofit

Four members of the Senior Services Council of San Juan County brought a lawsuit against fellow members of the nonprofit in the Superior Court of San Juan County.

On Dec. 13, Friday Harbor attornies James P. Grifo and Nicholas Power filed the suit against Carolyn Alder; Carl Bender; Dennis Busse; Nancy Geist; Martha Huleatte; Nancy Lidenberg; Terry Sanders; Stephen Shubert; Sandi Ugrin; Rita Weisbrod; and Marlon Wilke — all members of the Senior Services Council and/or the San Juan District Operations Committee. The complainants are Barbara Dragin, Michael Gallagher, Katherine Morningstar and Marie Skuffeda.

“The organizational structure has been turned upside down, and the Senior Services Council of San Juan County is no longer a democratic organization,” Morningstar said in a press release. “They have wrongfully eliminated the rights of San Juan County Seniors to elect representatives who in turn elect the Council Board. This self-appointing Board now asserts they have the power to anoint, rather than elect, those who represent County Seniors.”

According to the lawsuit, the council amended the organization’s Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws to terminate the membership and to consolidate power “among a select few.” Complainants said these changes were made in violation of Washington state law and the organization’s governing documents.

“In response to a recall, the San Juan District Operations Committee and Council Board chose to eliminate member voting rights. They wrongly took away our senior voting rights, without first gaining their approval,” Dragin said.

The changes were made following a July petition containing more than 90 signatures calling for the recall of Alder, Geist and Shubert. According to petitioner Minnie Knych, the three commissioners had exceeded the authority given to the operations committee in the bylaws. The bylines say the group is meant to represent the needs and interests of its membership and to manage the senior center’s facilities, she added.

“Rather than representing the needs and interests of the membership, you have arbitrarily begun to force your own agenda on the majority of the seniors,” Knych said. “Under your leadership the Operations Committee ignored two petitions requesting reinstatement of the Pledge.”

In spring, the Mullis Center’s Operations Committee decided to cease the saying of prayer and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance before its senior meals three times a week.

Knych claimed in her petition that the committee acted as the “executive board” and held secret meetings that should have been open to the whole committee. She alleged that other operations committee members were denied participation in the meeting and that the trio made misleading statements to the committee.

The document continued with Knych claiming the operations committee ignored two petitions requesting the pledge be reinstated—one with 27 signatures, the second with 200. She added that the group tried to change rules without providing justification or proper communications to the membership.

Steering away from the pledge, Knych continued that the committee’s lack of financial transparency is “alarming.” She claimed that the group has refused to disclose public financial documents or provide the center’s accounting firm’s name. Additionally, the petition stated that requests for an audit or review have been refused.

“We were left without recourse once they ignored the recall petition and moved swiftly to eliminate member voting rights in response. We need a judge to make this right,” Skuffeeda said in a press release. “We are doing this for all Seniors of San Juan County.”

Morningstar added that though the group strongly supports the center’s mission of taking care of seniors in need, the board has gone too far in removing the democratic process for electing an operations committee and council board.

“The Senior Services Council of San Juan County and its District Operations Committees are no longer accountable to community seniors, and that is simply not right,” Morningstar said.

The Journal reached out to the Senior Services Council regarding the petition but a response was not received before press deadline.