Former RISA Program Director blames confusion and Inexperience for Senior Association’s Troubles
Of all the people involved in the Roosevelt Island Senior Association’s loss of the Senior Center contract in June, few had as close a view as Rema Townsend. As former program director for the group, known as RISA, Townsend managed the Senior Center for 13 years and was privy to much of what went on, both at the Center and behind the scenes.
“They [the board] had to come to me for everything: grant-writing, bookkeeping,” says Townsend. “The board of directors did not know what they were doing. What they were, was great women, great seniors, great people.”
As a new RISA board works to pick up the pieces of an organization left, by all accounts, in disarray and under scrutiny from the Department for the Aging (DFTA), Townsend has found herself a target of suspicion and blame. However the true issue, she says, was a poorly organized board of directors that, for too long, was unwilling to take the helm.
Townsend says she was hired by RISA in 2002, fresh out of graduate school, with little knowledge of how to run a center or how funding works in New York. Her job was program director.
What Townsend quickly discovered, however, was that many of the board members themselves didn’t understand how the organization operated. Speaking of the board that hired her, Townsend says, “They were great people – the board and the seniors – but they lacked the knowledge to run the sponsorship and expected the director to know and do everything.
“That’s why I got intertwined with the City. I might have let [DFTA] know that [the RISA board] didn’t know what they were doing. I didn’t, because we were cute and we were little and we weren’t bothering anybody. If I told the City, they would have taken the board away from [the seniors].”
Townsend says she learned what needed to be done to maintain operations at the center, including grant-writing, paperwork, bookkeeping, and accounting.
She acknowledged that many of the responsibilities were entirely outside her job description, but said she kept being called upon by top board officers for assistance and given more and more autonomy. For example, she says she did RISA Treasurer Bubu Arya’s bookkeeping for years.
Townsend says that in 2014, Dolores Green, the president of RISA at the time, called on her to attend the RIOC Public Purpose Fund meetings and advocate for RISA’s application, which Townsend herself had written. Typically, top board members make the presentation and handle the panel’s questions. According to Townsend, the board didn’t know how to answer questions about RISA’s operations.
Ten years after she started working there, according to Townsend, the board make-up hadn’t changed and neither had their knowledge of the board itself or their willingness to learn.
“They’re still on the board, holding on tight, but things have changed, technology has changed, requirements have changed, demands have changed, paperwork has changed. But guess what, these board members didn’t change. This put me in a position of power. For many years, they needed me and I did everything.”
Townsend says she knew the arrangement wasn’t right, and that she tried to correct it. “I offered them training, workshops, everything, over and over. I was tired of doing everyone’s work.” But she also acknowledges that the arrangement gave her more freedom than she should have had. “The flip side was basically me not having anyone to reprimand me, and coming and going as I pleased. It was a quiet, unwritten rule. Was it right or wrong? I am not going to say. But that’s how it was for years.”
A New RISA Board
The RISA board’s role, like all boards, was to run the sponsorship itself, file paperwork, control the budget, submit taxes, write grants for the RIOC public purpose funds annually, as well as be in charge of payroll and accounting for balancing the books. However, according to Townsend, all of those duties fell on her shoulders. This is corroborated by both former and current board members.
Around 2014, a new, younger group of seniors got involved. They were more interested in the way things worked and in taking responsibility for their roles; what they didn’t realize was that the program director ran the center, and that their predecessors had empowered Townsend.
According to Townsend, “This is where the problem would occur. The older seniors couldn’t teach the new ones how the system worked. The younger ones said, ‘Why do we have to ask her [Townsend]; she’s the director.’ It created animosity between them and me.”
It didn’t help relations when some board members went to DFTA to complain about Townsend. Of that, she said, “I spent my career trying to save them [from themselves]. They went down there and screwed the whole thing up.”
Townsend says the ensuing power struggle between the new board members over how to proceed made it difficult to get daily work done. She said, “You have these board members all hating each other. Then you have me, focusing on the money, trying to keep the Center together… [It got to the point that] if you have a problem, you can’t even run it by anybody because no one was talking to each other.”
Ultimately, Townsend was let go at the beginning of June. According to her, her contract was up and not renewed. She says she was paid through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
According to other former and current members, however, DFTA, which funded the Senior Center sponsorship, demanded that RISA let Townsend go.
DFTA ran the day-to-day operations for the remainder of the month of June, before hiring the Carter Burden Center for the Aging to replace RISA as the Senior Center sponsor.
Responding to Accusations
In the months since June, Townsend says she has faced numerous accusations about her management of the Center, including questions about credit card bills, payments, and the signature on RISA checks, however she said she was never approached by DFTA or subject to any official investigation. For the most part, she believes the accusations stem from a lack of understanding by former and new board members.
For example, some former members took issue with the organization’s 990s. However, Townsend says, “[RISA’s] 990s were prepared by an accountant, and sent to the IRS. Then some board members accused me of misusing funds, based on their reading of the 990s, that we paid a certified accountant to prepare. They, as board members, did not know what a 990 was. They came back asking me, ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?’ A board member doesn’t even know the name of their caterer.”
Additionally, members questioned how certain items and classes were paid for. Townsend explains that DFTA operates as a reimbursement program, authorized expenses were filed by RISA on a monthly basis and then refunded by DFTA. Townsend describes a system where RISA would use their Public Purpose Fund (PPF) grant money for DFTA-sanctioned expenses, then pay it back when the DFTA money came in (a “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” situation). DFTA needed to receive invoices before sending funds. Townsend is adamant that all PPF funds were accounted for, and the grants were filed at the request of the board.
Former Treasurer Arya has charged Townsend with forging her signature on RISA checks. Multiple sources involved with the RISA board at the time, however, confirm that Arya would occasionally leave blank signed checks with Townsend so when she traveled, Townsend would have checks to use in emergency situations or to take care of the ongoing expenses when she was gone. Townsend was not a signatory on the account.
Some members have also charged Townsend with purchasing a refrigerator and an oven that were not DFTA approved; Townsend points out that the appliances are still at the Senior Center with DFTA-approved stickers on them.
Looking back, Townsend says she can see how things went so wrong. After spending so many years trying to make the program work, Townsend admits she wasn’t accommodating when the new board was ready to take a stronger role.
She also wonders whether she shouldn’t have sounded the alarm to DFTA herself many years ago. “I might have let [the City] know that [the RISA Board] didn’t know what they were doing. I could have, but I didn’t. Why would I take these people’s lives away from them?”
She says she bristled after hearing that multiple board members went to DFTA to complain about her, “Bubu [Arya] and Wendy [Hersch] went down to DFTA and told on themselves. And DFTA looked at them like they were a bunch of idiots... They looked at them like, ‘You’re in charge of Rema! Why are you letting her do all of this?’ And guess what DFTA did – took the organization from them.”