Senior Services leaderless for too long, senior advocates say
Without a Senior Services leader for more than six months, some seniors say the township is not serving Montclair’s older population.
Former Department of Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair Director Katie York left in March 2021 and was replaced by Margaret Church in June 2021. But since spring of this year, senior leaders say, Church has been out on disability leave.
Now an interim director has been put in place, Township Manager Tim Stafford said at the July 26 council meeting, but declined to say who it is. But Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams told Montclair Local on Wednesday that Michelle DeWitt, Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning coordinator, will serve in a temporary interim capacity. As you may know she has held another role within the department. She is an excellent professional and well known and well regarded within the community.
Township officials declined to comment on when Church went on leave or when she is expected to return.
But Ann Lippel, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, Annette Weis, president of Aging in Montclair, and Louella Dudley, chair of the Montclair Aging Advocacy Coalition, said that the director has been on disability “for the bulk of 2022.”
“Township officials told us that the director’s disability leave would end on July 5, almost a year after she was hired,” Dudley said. “Well, July 5 has come and gone, and she has still not reported to work.”
Interim Township Attorney Paul Burr told Montclair Local that township personnel matters are confidential, except to provide the employee’s date of hire and the name of the interim director, if any.
“The township cannot release any information pertaining to an employee’s leave of absence,” Burr said.
Last week, Communications Director Katya Wowk said no interim director has been appointed. But at the July 26 meeting, Stafford said he had made a move to put someone in place to lead Senior Services as of last Friday.
Abrams said that Stafford also indicated that his team would be searching for a clerical staff person to augment the smooth function of the office.
DeWitt will bring some continuity to the department which some seniors say has been lacking, since York left and Susan Portuese, longtime director of Health and Human Services, retired in June 2021. Health and Human Services oversees the Department of Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair. That department is being run by Keith Costello, who is acting health officer and acting department director. The department also lacks a social worker, Dudley said.
In February, 10 of the 12 members of Montclair’s Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, including the chair and vice chair, suddenly resigned following the Township Council’s move to reorganize the committee, first formed in 1985.
Resigning members say new bylaws ended their advocacy role on senior issues and imposed unnecessary rules for who can serve on the committee.
Those who resigned were Lippel, Dudley,
Ellie Bagli, Susan Craig, Gail Abramowitz, Barbara Chase, Rose Cofone, James Eason, Jeanette Jimenez and Frank Millspaugh.
Clarence Jackson and Roger Terry are the only members who did not resign.
The 10 members said their resignations weren’t only about the new language in the resolution removing their advocacy role, but that seniors’ needs and input have been neglected by the township for years.
“It’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back at this point,” Bagli said at the time.
Former members have since reorganized under the Montclair Aging Advocacy Coalition, which meets at the library monthly, Dudley said.
Much of Montclair’s Age-Friendly Community Action Plan, certified through AARP, has not been addressed, Lippel said. The plan aims to improve infrastructure by enhancing streets and creating safer pedestrian crossings, increasing access to transportation, easing zoning restrictions on accessory dwelling units and increasing the availability of alternative, accessible and affordable housing options. The plan also aims to increase access to health care and caregiving support.
According to Bagli, a former member of the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, from January 2021 to now the Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning “is the only program from Dr. York’s tenure that has thrived, and that is only because of the herculean effort of coordinator Michelle DeWitt.”
At the June 21 Township Council meeting Dudley suggested that the township form a task force to assess seniors’ needs and named as many as two dozen organizations she feels should be brought into the group.
She said that the number of residents over the age of 55 in Montclair exceeds the number of children in the public schools. Although much of Montclair’s senior population pays taxes, the township is not spending a fair share of its budget on senior services, she said.