Followup: New information, as West Seattle’s Senior Center mulls going independent

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The Senior Center of West Seattle has gone through one big change and is contemplating another. And today, we have more context for both.

One week ago, we published the announcement of a meeting at which center supporters hope to hear what you think about its relationship with the citywide nonprofit Senior Services, as they ask “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” – with “go” meaning, breaking off and operating independently.

This follows months of behind-the-scenes uncertainty that followed Senior Services’ firing in July of the West Seattle center’s longtime executive director Karen Sisson. (While SS does not own the center, it provides staffing and other services.)

SS has not commented on the reason for Sisson’s firing, but she has said it was about an e-mail she mistakenly circulated more widely than she intended, expressing concerns about a possible change in its relationship with West Seattle and other centers.

She has asked us to share that e-mail with you. And we have talked with a Senior Services spokesperson to find out what they are considering and why.

We first learned about Sisson’s July firing from David Robertson, president of the West Seattle center’s board. In a statement sent to WSB and published in this story, Robertson said Sisson was fired by Senior Services CEO Paula Houston with no notice to or consultation with the WS board “… apparently because Karen sent an email to all staff of Senior Services voicing her concerns regarding points brought to Karen’s attention in the future direction and management of the Senior Center of West Seattle.”

Sisson is now sharing that e-mail. First, in an e-mail exchange with WSB, she offered this preface.

I have noticed that many are asking why I got fired. The following is the email I sent to my board on July 10th. One of my staff members asked it be sent to staff so they could see what is happening. Instead of pressing the WS staff, I sent it to all staff of Senior Servcies by mistake. I apologized to Paula but it fell on deaf ears.

I felt I was doing my job letting my board know what the new focus, lead by Paula at Senior Services was.

In my contract work for the Board, I put together a 3 year budget, which was evident we could operate without the organization of Senior Service. These budgets included health, vision, hearing and life insurance for staff, I have offered my services to the Washington State Association of Senior Centers to evaluate and offer staff insurance policies to be offered to members Centers which would drive down the cost and up the benefits for the Centers. In these budgets I prepared, there was a 47,000.00 short fall next year, which I had already secured $30,000.00 to be used in the next 2 years. I put together the plan to separate from Senior Services, have services ready to implement and we could be successful in doing so.

I realize I do not work for the Center anymore, but I do feel very strongly that the building needs to stay in the control of the Center. Should there be days in the future that fundraising was down (West Seattle has been very kind to the Center, I do not see that happening) we would need the equity of the building to draw any kind of loan for operations, or for a capital campaign bridge loan. The notion of giving control over to Senior Services, which was their first request, or now to a Community Trust is not in the Centers best interest.

Please come to the meeting on November 11th, and help the board make this very much needed decision.

Here is the e-mail as sent to us by Sisson, also unedited:

Sent: Thursday, July 10, 2014 10:28 AM
Subject: Senior Services/Senior Center of West Seattle

As I leave with Doug to go on our 2 week boat trip this weekend up to the San Juan’s, I am sad to share news with you on what is transpiring at Senior Services.

Paula is presenting to her Board today that all Senior Center will become a ‘program’ of Senior Services , not separate Center’s.

I had lunch with Joanne yesterday and this is how it will shake out should the SS Board agree with this thinking.

All Centers would:

· Transfer all assets to SS, including bank accounts ,property and buildings.

· All Center Boards would disband, but could stay involved in the areas of volunteer activities they would like to.

· All decisions would be made FOR the local Centers by SS, with possibly no local input.

· Year end deficits would be paid by SS (If a director should lead their Center in deficits annually, they would be fired)

· All year end surplus from fundraising would go into the general fund at SS.

I am not sure what the up side to this agreement would be for our Center other than we would keep the united way money/unrestricted money from SS, which is 104.771.00 of which they take back 104,362.00 for admin services, ie HR, Cultural competence, IT, bookkeeping auditing and our supervision from SS.

This is of course is a board decision in the end, but hopefully there will be a option that Centers that want to remain independent can do so, however this is not the focus at this time.

One good thing is Joanne said a board member wants to hear from the Directors and the Boards as to their feelings.

At this time the Northwest Senior Center, Southeast Senior Center and us have a problem with this as far as the Directors go. Unfortunately both Northwest and Southeast usually end in a deficient so their voice might not be heard as well.

I am currently studying our options and analyze how we might be best prepared for this.

This potential split is not what I want at all, I have always said I would want our Center to be a part of the bigger voice, however this might push my thinking over that line Maybe the board has a more positive look at this than I.

I will be checking all emails while on the water when I have reception and answering phone calls.

Again, sorry to give you this troubling news.

Karen Sisson
Executive Director
Senior Center of West Seattle

Later that day, Sisson lost her job.

Senior Services has not yet made any specific proposal about changing how centers operate, spokesperson Karen Bystrom told WSB in a phone conversation this week. “It is a complicated relationship,” she said, between SS and the six senior centers to which it provides administrative services. (It runs the Central Area center “as a program,” she added.)

“We currently operate with six centers under a Memorandum of Agreement originated almost 50 years ago. … Each one is a 501(c)(3) with its own board. Under the MOA, Senior Services provides administrative services … HR, IT, payroll, accounting. Center employees are Senior Services employees, and receive benefits through us. Centers pay an administrative fee to us; we conduct a lot of fundraising that supports the centers; our fundraising activities also provide an allocation to each of the centers over the year.”

But, Bystrom said, “We’ve basically been told by auditors and funders that the current model has to change. Where we are at the moment is trying to figure out what that change will be.”

According to Bystrom, no decisions have been made, and none are imminent: “It’s going to take at least a year to develop a set of recommendations to determine a plan and implement a change.” She said a task force of SS board members and staff is “looking at this” and just met for the first time, though she later said that conversations with centers have been under way for months, and will continue: “We plan extensive discussion between the Senior Services board and center boards; we know we will be engaging center staff, volunteers, funders, communities. Every center knows what’s right for (its) community … we know that concerns have been voiced and that’s why we know this will take some time.”

So why, we asked, do “auditors and funders” want to change “the current model”?

Bystrom said there are “questions of governance, accountability, etc.,” because Senior Services has a board and each center has a separate board of its own.

Asked about the “community trust” concept that Sisson mentioned to us, Bystrom said that was something specific to the three centers – West Seattle, Southeast Seattle, and Snoqualmie Valley – that own their buildings: “One idea that will probably be looked at is, you can put buildings into a land trust. We don’t necessarily want to own buildings (but want to ensure) that any building owned by a senior center is going to remain a senior center forever, that’s the key to what this ultimate solution is. We know the communities made them happen; they need to remain as community resources.”

Bystrom said that resource status is because, for example, “senior centers are an integral part of the service network, often the first place somebody learns about Senior Services. We also believe the individual centers understand the needs of their community.”

So far, she said, there’s no specific feedback mechanism set up at SS yet regarding all this, but if you have a question or comment, you can send it to her –

Meantime, the meeting at the Senior Center of West Seattle is less than 3 weeks away, set for Tuesday, November 11th. It’s being held in two sessions, according to last Friday’s announcement – 3 pm and 5:30 pm – and questions/comments are welcome at

11 Replies to "Followup: New information, as West Seattle's Senior Center mulls going independent"

  • orca October 24, 2014 (6:13 pm)

    I see nothing in the email that would warrant firing of the West Seattle Exectutive Director.
    It appears a typical power play by the SS director against someone who disagreed with them.
    The West Seattle Board seems to have our area’s interest in mind.
    SS looks to have an agenda of regime building in mind.
    Come to the meeting.

  • Jan Jarrell October 24, 2014 (7:31 pm)

    I agree completely with orca. That email contains not one WORD that could possibly justify the arbitrary axing of one of the best directors the West Seattle Senior Center is ever likely to have.

    Clearly her firing is the knee-jerk reaction of a petulant woman who can’t bear to have anyone disagree with her ideas.

    Karen cared enough about the senior center and the senior citizens it serves to say what she honestly felt about a situation she believed could be harmful to them. She made no personal observations and said not ONE unkind word about Ms. Houston. Far as I’m concerned it was Karen’s JOB to evaluate such situations and offer her honest opinions about them. Her quarter century of excellent and devoted service gave her that right… and, indeed, that obligation!

    As far as I’m concerned the matter of separation from the parent Senior Center organization has nothing to DO with whether or not Karen should be reinstated. Why should these issues be viewed as one? Karen’s firing was wrong. It was a vicious, power grab perpetrated with NO due process and no board consultation. Karen needs to be reinstated whether or not we separate from the parent organization.

    And the sooner the better. It is a disgrace that it didn’t happen months ago.

    Jan Jarrell

  • dsa October 24, 2014 (7:40 pm)

    SS theft of the West Seattle Senior Center building, possessions and decisions is about to happen if you/we let it.

  • Elle Nell October 25, 2014 (1:25 am)

    This is very interesting.. I have a few older friends that have used SS for help around the house. They were told after complaining about incompetence, that the people SS were sending to these seniors homes were ex convicts. What I wonder is, who or what is behind Senior Services? This organization seems to be an opportunistic group that needs to be investigated. I have thought this from the begining. Good luck WS senior center, and may you please part ways with this joke of a non- profit.

  • JoB October 25, 2014 (7:17 am)

    I was in favor of the Senior Center’s becoming independent before reading the email.. but that email pretty much nails it.
    There is no good rationalization for giving senior center assets paid for by this community to another organization to do with as they see fit.

  • john kennedy October 25, 2014 (12:12 pm)

    We need to examine the charter and authority of senior services. Also examine its annual financial statement which is a laugh. It goes into income sources in geeat detail, but expenses in the most generalized way. We need an audit and report regards the operations and authority of senior services. Amongst other sources of income is the Older Americans Act, which calls for reporting to the local taxpayers.
    The authority of hiring and firing of the administrator should be with the local board, and sholuld be separated from the authority of one person on senior services board.
    We should request a procedure that would be answerable to local citizens of West Seattle. Sincerely, John Kennedy WWII Veteran, and participant in WS Senior Center Activiities.
    Karen has been excellent Administrator, and we need to challenge this new person at Senior Services. Thank you John Kennedy

  • Sharon October 25, 2014 (4:24 pm)

    Elle Nell …….oh you are so wrong and misinformed…truly services are clearly monitored and cleared via a rigorous screening system including bonifided
    background checks

  • Watching October 26, 2014 (11:22 am)

    “Bystrom said there are “questions of governance, accountability, etc.,” because Senior Services has a board and each center has a separate board of its own.”

    It seems like an easy enough solution. Just get rid of the board of directors at each center, consolidate it and have all the decisions made downtown. Also, sell the building in West Seattle and put all funds into a general fund to benefit all senior citizens, not just those in West Seattle.

  • john kennedy October 26, 2014 (2:39 pm)

    Who is “Comment b y Watching”?

  • Carol O. October 29, 2014 (2:36 pm)

    Comment by Watching maybe we need a one world goverment too, huh? LOL

  • Joanne Murray November 1, 2014 (4:45 pm)

    The Local Board of the West Seattle Senior Center monitor all of the affairs at the center, including the income, expenses, fund raising, services and classes offered at the WS Sr. Center. The building belongs to the West Seattle Sr. Center. To give up all of the assets would just feed a larger bureaucracy with no control or accountability. Keeping the WS Sr. center as a well established, properly run institution with the board overseeing its operations and auditing the accounting on a regular basis seems to be the best solution in my honest opinion. Whatever other benefits that were offered could be provided by professionals in West Seattle.

Sorry, comment time is over.