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Accusations fly at Senior Center meeting

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The Alexandria Senior Center at 414 Hawthorne Street is on the main floor. Nutrition Services Inc. leases space to serve daily senior lunches from the center's kitchen and Towne Square Apartments occupy the second floor of the building with a few located on the ground floor, as well. (Photo by Al Edenloff)2 / 3
Three pool tables are a popular attraction at the Alexandria Senior Center. (file photo)3 / 3

Accusations and pointed questions were raised at Monday's Alexandria Senior Center Board meeting about the future of the center and its director, Ann Esterberg.

Board member Paul Anderson, who is a former Douglas County commissioner, called for Esterberg's resignation, saying that she was responsible for the center's decline in membership and profitability.

Anderson said that the center, which recently cashed in a certificate of deposit for $59,200, faces expenses of $5,000 a month and will be forced to close its doors in a few months.

He suggested selling the center's portion of the building it owns at 414 Hawthorne Street to another one of the building's owners, Paul Widmark.

"Why go down with a sinking ship?" he said.

Esterberg deflected much of the criticism to Nutrition Services Inc. (NSI), which provides food service at the center. She said NSI, which leases the kitchen area to prepare meals, doesn't reimburse the center fairly. She also said that Anderson had a conflict of interest when he joined the board because he wanted to help NSI instead of the center. She accused Anderson of creating "hostile conditions" at the center.

Anderson denied having an agenda against the center.

One member, Jim Bjerknes, was so frustrated with how things have been going at the center that he resigned during Monday's meeting. He said he and other members joined the board with the goal of helping seniors but that wasn't happening.

"I will resign right now," he said. "It's going to go that way in 10 or 11 months anyway."

A non-board member, Scott Quitmeyer, who volunteers at the center, said that if others told him they were not happy with his work he would voluntarily step down and suggested that Esterberg should do the same thing. "Maybe it's just that time to move on," he said.

Several other non-board members and former members also expressed frustrations over the center's management. They said Esterberg was not a "people person" and that the center has gone downhill as a result. "It's either Ann's way or the highway," said Clarence Wolf, a past board president.

Art Berg, a former board member and a kitchen volunteer, said that Esterberg spends most of her time in her office and doesn't interact with the seniors enough, such as during birthday celebrations.

Esterberg brushed aside the requests to resign voluntarily. "I am doing my job," she said.

Esterberg received support from board president Joyce Martinson. She said that if Esterberg left the center, it would quickly fall apart.

"Ann does a fantastic job," Martinson said, adding that it was "really easy to criticize" without fully understanding everything Esterberg does.

Board member Eugene Bakke also defended Esterberg. He said that the problems at the center were not her fault. He said that the sluggish economy, changes in the meal program, aging membership and other factors play a bigger role.

Esterberg said her job isn't an easy one. "You know how many bosses I've got?" she asked.

"Seven?" said Anderson, referring to the board members.

"No, every single senior member," she said.

Toward the end of the meeting, board member Greg Odell said the board should make some kind of decision that day about the center's future and Esterberg's role in it.

Esterberg and Martinson said that all the board members should be involved in that decision. "I can't imagine voting with only five members here," said Martinson.


Alexandria Senior Center board members Paul Anderson and Greg Odell raised several questions at Monday's meeting about Director Ann Esterberg's leadership, including:

•Why hasn't Esterberg applied for grants to help the center? Esterberg said she contacted two professional grant writers who told her there were no grants available.

•Why aren't senior menus printed in the center's newsletter? Esterberg said that only 12 people eat the meals so "who is going to read it?" Board President Joyce Martinson added that the menus are printed in the newspaper.

•Why doesn't Esterberg communicate with Nutrition Services Inc. and why isn't NSI represented at board meetings? Esterberg said that NSI can attend anytime. Esterberg added she warmly welcomed the NSI cook back in 2010 but problems started soon after that, such as NSI refusing to empty garbage bins. She said the "last straw" happened on a Friday night when she found another bin heaping with garbage. She said she rolled the bin into the cook's office and locked the door for the weekend. "He hasn't talked to me since," she said. Anderson said Esterberg's behavior sounded more like a 6th grader than a director. Former board member Art Berg, who volunteers in the kitchen, said the board should get together with NSI to straighten out the conflicts. "Bickering over a garbage can is childish," he said.

•Why didn't Esterberg allow Scott Quitmeyer, a volunteer at the center, to attend a previous board meeting? Esterberg said that Quitmeyer wasn't old enough because members of the center have to be 50 or older.

•Why aren't notices of the board's meetings publicly posted? Esterberg didn't respond directly to the question.

•Why are only four of the seven board members listed in the center's monthly newsletter? Esterberg said she forgot to include the new members.

•What is the balance in the center's checkbook? Esterberg said that she didn't know the exact amount for that day but after the CD was cashed, the balance was more than $59,000.

When Anderson asked how long she expected that to last, Esterberg said that the board discussed that at a previous meeting. Anderson said he didn't recall such a discussion. Esterberg said that she couldn't help him from "not listening."

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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