By Joe Stumpe
The Sedgwick County Advisory Council on Aging and Disabilities has new leadership amid questions about what its role should be.
Chairman Joe Brown abruptly resigned in August, although his departure didn’t become public until last month. At that time, Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis, who appointed Brown, said Brown left because of stress caused by the actions of an unnamed advisory council member. Dennis also accused an unnamed county commissioner of meddling in the affairs of the council, which was set up to advise the county’s Department on Aging and to advocate for older and disabled citizens.
Dennis called it “tragic that someone who’s volunteering their time and effort is resigning” and said “the main reason he has stress is because one of the appointments by our commission is causing stress on that entire committee, and I wouldn’t doubt that we have more people resign as a result of that in the future.”
Jim Burgess, an advisory council member from Derby, and County Commissioner Jim Howell acknowledged that Dennis was talking about them. Both said the only thing they have done is push for the county to increase spending on senior-related services such as Meals on Wheels and local senior centers.
Howell said he had spoken to the advisory council after receiving an invitation to do so. At that meeting, he urged council members to seek additional county funding for senior-related services. Burgess, who was appointed to the advisory county by Howell, has taken the lead in doing so.
Brown, when contacted by the active age, said the reason for his resignation “was really pretty simple. I’ve got some health issues I’ve got to take care of.”
“The advisory council is right at the peak of when they do their review and their business. It’s real important that they have leadership and I’m not going to be able to do it.”
Brown underwent surgery for an undisclosed condition in mid-September and was recovering at home. Told of Dennis’ characterization of his reason for resigning, Brown said: “What you’re telling me is news to me. Commissioner Dennis is a very perceptive man, I will tell you that.”
In his resignation letter to Dennis, obtained by the active age, Brown did not mention stress or a medical condition.
“This letter is a request that you and the Board of Sedgwick Commissioners accept my resignation from the Sedgwick County Advisory Council on Aging and Physical Disabilities effective as soon as possible. This request is based on the fact that my signature recently appeared on an extraordinary funding request letter to you and your colleagues from the Advisory Council. The letter asked for supplemental funding for two programs that serve the aging and/or the physically disabled; both had waiting times or lists that needed to be shortened or eliminated. What I, as Chair, failed to understand and communicate to the Council prior to the 11 to 3 vote, was the degree to which the county’s budget process would be disrupted and complicated by the late timing of this supplemental request. Commissioner Meitzner brought this fact to public attention in a recent BOCC meeting as did Director Annette Graham at the August 14th meeting of this Board. I offer my sincere apology and feel it is incumbent to submit this resignation.”
Brown’s resignation came immediately after the August meeting of the advisory council. At that meeting, Annette Graham, director of the Department on Aging, played a videotape of County Commissioner Pete Meitzner’s remarks at the county’s final budget hearing.
At that hearing and during a previous session, Burgess had asked county commissioners to approve additional funding for Meals on Wheels, several area senior centers and a wheelchair repair and modification program. On a motion by Commissioner Lacey Cruse, the commission unanimously approved an additional $125,000 for the Department on Aging, although Meitzner and Dennis both expressed irritation at being asked to do so late in the budget process.
“I’m glad we are going to do a comprehensive review of that department,” Meitzner said during the August hearing, referring to a staff review that County Manager Tom Stolz has promised. “I was troubled by all the discussion we’ve had. We’re all supportive of everything about (the Department on Aging) but I want to thank the remaining 40 county departments and the managers and the advisory boards that did not come to us after the deadline for the budget process.”
Several advisory council members felt they were being criticized.
“All we were trying to do was help people,” Jeri Myers of Mulvane said.
“It sounded to me like she was giving us a little hell,” George Dean said. “I don’t know if she had someone particular in mind or all of us.”
Burgess made the request for more funding for senior-related as a private citizen, not as a representative of the advisory council or on behalf of the Department on Aging.
The commission’s budget committee had earlier rejected the advisory council’s request that Brown referenced in his resignation letter.
Brown, asked by the active age if the August meeting played any role in his decision to resign, said: “You were there. I just don’t want to comment on anything further.”
During Brown’s tenure as chairman, the advisory council has taken on more of an advocacy role than in previous years, members say. Some members have questioned whether the county’s spending on senior-related services is keeping up with the growing older population. Currently, the county collects and spends less than half of the property taxes earmarked for those services that voters authorized in the early 1980s. Dean and Myers both said they hope the council’s advocacy doesn’t end with Brown’s departure.
Dennis, who is chairman of the county commission, said he asked Brown several times not to resign. “I thought he was a great representative.”
Also in September, County Commissioner Lacey Cruse requested and received the resignation of the advisory council’s vice chair, Cathie Hay. Cruse, who took office in January, plans to make her own appointment to the council.
“Since I was vice chair, I expected to go back as chair” following Brown’s resignation, Hay said. “My expectations were not met.”
At their September meeting, council members elected Mary Corrigan as chairman and Debbie Willsie as vice chair. Both are educators. Corrigan also sits on the board of the active age.
Contact Joe Stumpe at