Board meetings of the Council on Aging for St. Tammany Parish are often surreal, but Thursday’s three-hour meeting may have set a new record with its shouting, tears, a walkout by the president in an effort to prevent a quorum, an “unresignation” and the eventual placing of the already fired executive director on paid administrative leave. When it was over, the agency’s human resources coordinator had been appointed interim director while a search for a replacement for the controversial Mary Toti is conducted.
The board of the agency, which has been under fire from citizens groups and parish leaders for months, voted last month to dismiss Toti, but it gave her 60 days’ notice and allowed her to keep working during that time.
Board member Bill Magee, who made the motion to oust Toti, said Thursday that delay had been a mistake.
“Immediately I started to rethink the firing,” he said.
Magee moved to amend Toti’s dismissal and place her on paid administrative leave until May 26, the end of the original 60-day period. He also moved that Toti be required to remove all of her personal effects from the office and turn in all COAST-owned equipment.
After the board passed his motion 7-5, Toti asked how long she had to clear out.
Magee said she needed to do it by 4:30 p.m., even though it was nearing 4 p.m.
“It might take longer. Like until 8,” she said.
“Whatever,” Magee replied with a wave of his hand, but Toti wasn’t done.
“Or 10. Maybe 11,” Toti said.
“Whatever you need to do,” Magee responded.
Despite having been placed on administrative leave, Toti remained in the meeting, at one point interrupting the proceedings to deliver a tearful speech.
“I respect her,” she said, pointing to Human Resources Coordinator Lisa Gilberti, who had been appointed interim director. “But this process is very painful.”
Toti also reacted angrily to Magee’s comment that he had talked to employees who described COAST as dysfunctional under Toti, saying he should have surveyed the entire staff.
Earlier, the board rejected a request from Toti’s attorney to conduct a grievance process and give Toti a chance to face her critics. Board members said Toti, as an at-will employee, was not entitled to the grievance process, despite an impassioned plea from board member John J. Morella, who yelled, “She has a right to defend herself!”
After the meeting, Toti refused to say whether she plans to challenge her firing in court.
Gilberti will serve as interim director until a permanent replacement for Toti is found. The board Thursday approved a job description and an advertisement that will be published in various media outlets to solicit applications for executive director.
The vote to place Toti on administrative leave came near the end of a meeting that featured several other odd moments.
For example, Ted Saba, who resigned from the board after Toti was fired last month, announced he did not wish to resign from the board but only as chairman of its Personnel Committee.
After consulting with an attorney from the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, the board voted unanimously to accept Saba’s revocation of his resignation.
After the Toti matter had been settled, Magee turned his attention to board President Kathleen Javery Bacon, who earlier in the meeting had — without objection — conducted a vote without a motion or a second on the table. Bacon is an ally of Toti’s, and Toti’s foes have had their eye on her for some time.
Because Thursday was not a regular board meeting, however, rules prohibited Magee from moving to have Bacon removed as president. Instead, he pushed for a vote on a resolution of no confidence and a request for her to resign.
When the agenda item was announced, Bacon stood up to leave the room in an attempt to deny the board a quorum. Because no one else followed her, though, she returned and sat through the debate, saying before a vote was taken, “I am not resigning.” The board voted 7-5 for Magee’s resolution.
After the meeting, Magee refused to declare victory, saying only that he had done what needed to be done.
A COAST spokesman said that despite the turmoil, no services to the parish’s elderly would be interrupted.