TRAVERSE CITY — Max Binkley described his time on the Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging board as “wasted.”
“I was going to try to get some stuff done, but I’ve been running into a brick wall,” he said.
Anxiety and stress coupled with that “brick wall” sensation prompted Binkley to resign from his board post last week. Now the appointed board that oversees in-home and senior center services for thousands of elderly Grand Traverse County residents is one member short. But, according to Binkley, that’s the least of the commission’s problems.
Binkley said a few ingrained and outspoken board members — along with Commission on Aging Director Georgia Durga — dominate the commission’s conversations and decisions, and effectively limit the contributions of those who are not part of what he described as a ruling clique.
Board member Shirley Zerafa said Binkley’s concerns are valid.
“We have many new members who try to come on with new ideas and try to implement them and they are shot down quickly,” said Zerafa, who’s been on the board for five years. “There is dysfunction and butting of heads with anybody who has a strong personality or new ideas.”
Binkley and Zerafa said the commission’s staff and its board do a lot of good for senior citizens. Binkley said the problems start with Ralph Soffredine, the commission’s chair and a former Traverse City commissioner and city police chief.
In a recent example, Binkley said, Soffredine attended a committee meeting to which he was not assigned. His appearance was as a guest, but Soffredine didn’t like Binkley’s proposal to institute a commissioner dress code, so he made “derogatory” comments and preemptively killed the dress code idea before it was considered, Binkley said.
“So I got shot down, because Ralph, when he doesn’t like something, he keeps talking and you just feel the energy leave the room,” Binkley said.
Soffredine said he didn’t prevent anyone from contributing to the conversation in that instance or any other.
“We’ve never had a problem, but (Binkley) seems to think we have to go by everything he says and everything he wants,” Soffredine said.
Binkley said Soffredine is joined by board member Chris Maxbauer, a Grand Traverse County commissioner, and Durga in controlling the board.
Maxbauer said she’d love to take credit for the commission’s work, but the work is the result of the full board’s efforts.
“I’m sorry Mr. Binkley feels this way, but it’s simply not the case,” she said. “That board is an engaged board, an excellent board, and the result speak for themselves.”
Durga said board meetings are “open” and no commissioners are “deliberately stifled” during conversations.
Board Secretary Michelle Mercer agreed.
“We really try and do the best that we can with what we have,” Mercer said. “And again as I said, I feel really comfortable at meetings when I go to them.”
Binkley also said the commission’s 13-member board is too big and unwieldy and creates extra work for the commission’s employees. He sent an email to county commission Chair Herb Lemcool with several suggested changes to the Commission on Aging, as well as a copy of his resignation letter. Binkley titled the message “Please do not replace me,” and suggested the commission board be reduced to six or seven members.
Lemcool said he supports the suggestion.
“The county can be run by seven commissioners,” Lemcool said. “We sure don’t need 11 or 12 or 15 Commission on Aging people.”