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Raging Gracefully 

Days in the life of Sunset Hall

Thursday, Apr 17 2003
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Page 4 of 6

The haste and secrecy of such an important hire does “not look right,” ä says Pete Manzo, spokesperson for the Los Angeles–based Center for Non-Profit Management. “Hiring an executive director provides the opportunity for reflection upon the institution’s mission and on long-term strategy planning,” Manzo explains. “Unless that person is from the inside, a quick hire of such an important position without open discussion could be seen as shortsighted, or maybe even reckless.”

Board member Kathryn Black denies there is a crisis (“These situations are part of Sunset Hall’s history,” she remarks), but fellow board member Ernie Pipes says that Sunset Hall could close within months “if marketing efforts don’t work.” Still, nobody has yet suggested selling Sunset Hall.

The most candid assessment of the reasons for Way’s replacement comes from Way himself, who explains that the board was demanding that he be both a marketer and an administrator/caregiver — an impossible task, says Way, considering that the administrative and caregiving responsibilities for the residents are all-consuming.

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Last February, Way suggested to the board that it set aside $50,000 of a $230,000 bequest to Sunset Hall to hire a marketing manager to attract residents. The board rejected Way’s proposal, and when the money started running out, Way refused the board’s offer of a 30 percent pay cut to remain at Sunset Hall without any marketing responsibilities — that is, to continue what he was already doing. Now the board hopes it has found, in Solis, somebody who can market the institution while maintaining Way’s level of devotion to the residents.

“To find one person who can do both would be quite rare,” board member Pipes admits.

At last month’s meeting in the dining hall, family members sitting around the edge of the room testify, one after another, that were it not for Phil Way, they wouldn’t have brought their parents to Sunset Hall. Then Irja, wheezing in a wheelchair from a recent bout with emphysema, plows into the board with the chutzpah of her muckraking days:

“This board is simply blaming Phil for its own shortcomings,” Irja starts. “Phil is on call seven days a week. In four years, he’s never taken a vacation. When the driver is out sick, it’s Phil who takes us shopping. When our toilets clog up, it’s Phil who’s there with a plunger. Where are you? And when did families stop being invited to board meetings? When did all these closed-door executive sessions start? I am disgusted.”

Irja followed up her outburst by meeting with Solis in the library a few days later.

“I blew it,” Irja confesses. “I asked her about her politics, and she said she didn’t have to answer that question. Then I asked her about her philosophy, and she said she didn’t have to answer that question either. I got mad and left. Discussing politics and philosophy is why I came here!”

The board’s cloak-and-dagger approach to hiring the new executive director has residents like Irja worried that the board is too willing to sell out Sunset Hall’s ideological traditions, if that’s the quickest route to financial health.

Indeed, despite residents’ concerns, the clandestine maneuvering seems to be continuing as Solis has already transferred six residents from her current employer, the Molokan Home for the Aged, while her staff at Molokan has been directed not to discuss the nature of or reasons for the transfers, or even to disclose her name. Sunset Hall residents worry that the old folk arriving from Molokan have no experience with or affinity for Sunset Hall’s progressive legacy and that the transfers appear to be in direct conflict with policies prohibiting discount rates and double-room occupancy to which Way was strictly bound, but Solis is not. Solis declined to return phone calls from the Weekly, and Sunset Hall board president Larry Abbott had no comment.

 

Out in the stony courtyard, Irja leads a circle of women in discussion. The women are still feeding off the energy of the previous day’s anti-war rally, gibing the administration, trading anti-war stories. Irja catches every little irony, every wry joke, with a quick laugh. She grew up in Connecticut, Quaker stock, and recalls her father working in an ax factory, where the metal dust was damaging workers’ lungs. He started a union-organizing effort for healthier working conditions. These days, Irja has a computer in her room with a high-speed Internet connection — the better to feed her news-junkie habit. It also allows her to e-mail her son, her only child, now in his 60s, who has a high-tech career in China. Curiously, Irja, who is not Jewish, nudges the mostly Jewish residents to observe the customs of their faith — candles for the Jewish New Year, Manischewitz wine. They usually go along with it, reluctantly, and perplexed by Irja’s obsession with traditions not her own.

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