Saturday, June 18, 2005

Bolting Door Against Rival With Clout

By DAN BARRY, June 18, 2005, NY Times
THREE officials from the city's Department for the Aging paid a visit last week to the Roundtable Senior Center in Bushwick. They pressed the button and asked for admission.

Go away, said voices from the other side of the locked door. So they went away.

The next morning, more city officials arrived, six this time, armed with cellphones, an appointment, and the pride of public purpose. This was not a courtesy call. The city had recently awarded management of the center to a new organization, and the transition had to begin.

This time a dozen people in chairs blocked the door, including Geneva Valrie-Smith, 68 and legally blind. "And we had Mrs. Adele Cooper," she recalled. "And Mr. Willie Griffin, and Mr. Dan Whitted. ..."

The sitting Roundtable defenders began arguing with the standing city officials. Why do you want to change things here? Why don't you let us alone?

Things got ugly. Someone called the police, and the Rev. Kermitt Williams, the Roundtable's director, came downstairs. The gray-haired rebels went back inside, and the phone-clutching officials faded from Gates Avenue, leaving nothing resolved in this corner of Brooklyn, where things are not always what they seem.

Back in the early 1970's, a woman named Christine Cutchin saw a vacant lot, imagined a center for children and the elderly, and built it: a social services anchor of brick for the neighborhood. Meanwhile, to the north, a man named Vito J. Lopez saw a similar need and founded the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council.

Mr. Lopez eventually left his organization for the State Assembly, where he became the Brooklyn power broker with the social services résumé. And his baby, Ridgewood Bushwick, became a large

multiservice agency with a psychic if not a paper bond with its founder; mayors visit its operations to curry his favor.

Mrs. Cutchin, meanwhile, nurtured Roundtable so long that she became known as Mother Cutchin. But she retired in 1999, and things began to slip, with a board of directors that seemed barely conscious and a treasurer who forged some $40,000 in checks. The city, which provided money for the center, was not happy.

One day Mother Cutchin, walking the streets and fretting about her center's problems, passed a storefront church and heard the preaching echoes of Mr. Williams. Somehow, she said, she knew that he could save the Roundtable.

Mr. Williams, 59, makes no attempt to deny that in 1989 he was one of several men convicted of extorting construction contractors while trying to win more jobs for black and Hispanic workers. He received probation, he says. "I was naïve."

He tried but could not refuse Mother Cutchin, and so immersed himself in trying to save Roundtable. He helped to install a new board and pleaded with the city to keep Roundtable open. Elderly African-Americans felt at home there, he said.

In February 2004, the reverend met with city officials to develop a corrective plan for the outstanding debts and poor fiscal management. Mr. Williams agreed to become the interim director of the center, and to allow its home-delivered-meals operation to be taken over by Ridgewood Bushwick, the only other provider of such a program in the neighborhood.

"We're improving steadily," Mr. Williams recalled.

EVERY six years the management of a city-financed center for the elderly is put up to bid. Now it was Roundtable's turn, and its parent organization, the one founded by Mother Cutchin, applied to renew its city contract. Mr. Williams worried about competition from Ridgewood Bushwick, but was told by allies of Mr. Lopez that it wasn't interested.

Turns out, it was. In March the city notified Mr. Williams that beginning July 1, a new provider would be operating Roundtable. Guess who. This meant that Mother Cutchin would be ushered out the very door she opened more than 30 years earlier.

Christopher Miller, a spokesman for the Department for the Aging, said that a nonpartisan review committee selected Ridgewood Bushwick's application over two other proposals. Mr. Lopez said that although he wasn't involved, he heard that Roundtable "was having pretty serious financial problems, and I would assume that led to them losing their contract."

Christiana Fisher, Ridgewood Bushwick's chief executive, did not return telephone calls. Nor did the local city councilwoman, Diana Reyna, who happens to be a protégé of Mr. Lopez's.

And Mr. Williams and Mother Cutchin rally by the door, waiting for city officials to return. Because they will.

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