Northampton Senior Center bars bridge games over dispute between players, staff

  • Marie Westburg, who started as director of Senior Services for Northampton on April 30, 2018, talks with Karl Drumm, left, of Northampton, Eugene Barry of Florence and Ted Breau of Chesterfield during a reception at the Senior Center, May 21, 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2019 11:29:20 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 11:29:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — About 20 seniors gathered in the bistro room at the Senior Center on Tuesday afternoon — but not for their usual duplicate bridge game.

The twice-weekly events have been “suspended until further notice,” as director Marie Westburg wrote in an email to one of the group’s members on Friday evening.

“This is a massive upset,” group member Aniko Giordano said, adding that the event was a meaningful social outing for some.

The group gathered Tuesday in hopes of meeting with Westburg about the suspension, but a member of the center’s staff came in and informed them that Westburg would meet with only one person who could act as a liaison to the group — a condition that angered them.

They refused. “She’s here, we’re here, come speak to the group,” Giordano said, sitting in the bistro with the other bridge players. Others in the room looked upset.

The actual suspension came after an incident on Friday afternoon at the group’s bridge game. More than 30 seniors were playing when a disagreement arose between some group members and a staff member over a fan and an open window, according the parties involved.

Giordano and other seniors said she tried to open the window and was told not to by the staff member. Westburg said the players were rude to the staff member. “They treated him badly,” she said.

Some seniors took issue with how the situation was handled. As Giordano recalled, “Within five minutes, three people burst through the door,” saying they heard there was a “kerfuffle.”

“They did not identify themselves,” she said.

Westburg said staff told the seniors they needed to abide by the code of conduct and agreed to come back after the game to continue talking to them.

The game ran late and Westburg found Giordano as she was leaving and asked her to meet then, according to both women. However, Giordano said she wasn’t able to meet and Westburg said Giordano “refused” to, so Westburg said the group was temporarily suspended.

Giordano said it is not clear to her why the group is temporarily banned from playing duplicate bridge at the senior center.

When asked about the suspension, Westburg said it is because a liaison would not meet with her. She said she has informed the bridge players they need to name a liaison to communicate with the center’s staff about scheduling, room changes and any conflicts, which she said is a routine condition for groups at the center.

“We need to have a system for communication,” she said. She also said that there has been a report of conflict within the group of bridge players

Giordano said they didn’t know until recently they needed a liaison and that, ​​“We don’t have an official person that’s responsible for the group. We don’t have a person who’s an in-between.”

On Tuesday, the bridge players expressed their frustration with the situation.

“We’ve played here for many years without this problem,” Diane Liebert said.

Many were confused about what exactly the issue was. “We’re in limbo — are we suspended?” Giordano asked rhetorically. “Are we allowed to play Scrabble here?”

‘Criticism and unrest’

The bridge incident is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said bridge player Nancy Duseau.

“There has been over the last year or so much criticism and unrest among many of the Senior Center members about the administration and how the employees there respond to member concerns,” Duseau wrote in a recent letter sent to Mayor David Narkewicz and members of the Council on Aging, urging them to address concerns about the center’s management and to listen to the members.

“There are MANY examples of poor management skills exhibited by the administration,” she wrote.

Bridge players gathered on Tuesday shared some of their own experiences. Kathleen Joss, recounting a negative experience with Westburg, said “I’ve been thrown out of better places than this,” to which other seniors in the room laughed and clapped.

“You can’t sit here and complain,” Duseau said, explaining why some senior citizens were taking action. But, she said, many bridge group members are in their 80s and 90s. “This isn’t what we want to do.”

Westburg’s hiring last spring caused some controversy. A number of people thought that Heather Cahillane, who was Senior Services assistant director at the time, should have been appointed director. Several members of the Council on Aging, the committee that advises Mayor David Narkewicz on senior issues, resigned after the mayor declined to take their advice and hire Cahillane for the job.

Westburg said she wants to work out the issue with the bridge group. “I understand for some people this may be the most fun they have all week,” she said. “We understand that. We’re all about providing a space for socializing and having it go smoothly.”

Although they never met with Westburg on Tuesday, some of the senior citizens played bridge despite their suspension.

“Nothing bad happened,” Duseau said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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