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Our View: Misinformation on Senior Center does damage

When did unsubstantiated rumors become more reliable than readily available sourced information?

We are thrown by the story last week of newsletters with Volunteers of America letterhead in first person, unsigned and taped to residents’ doors at the Miremonte senior complex in Three Springs, incorrectly saying Durango City Council is considering defunding the Durango-La Plata Senior Center. Imagine Senior Center regulars, who meet friends for lunch, attend classes and access resources, coming home to this newsletter.

They would likely be worried. And disheartened.

We’re putting together pieces of the puzzle, but missing the connector on what moved VOA employees – likely well-intentioned, concerned and scared – to post this newsletter. What was said openly or softly off to the side that would seed misinformation? The newsletters weren’t just printed and left in a common area. Not left in mail slots. They were taped to individual doors, indicating urgency.

The newsletter opened with:

“Senior Center at Risk! City Counsel (sic) considering removing Funding.”

It follows with, “Two weeks ago, I was at the Elders Planning Meeting at the Senior Center when I discovered the City Council’s future plans to defund the Senior Center!”

Exclamation points throughout offer jolts of desperation.

“City Council is discussing removing the Joint Sales Tax moneys from the Senior Center!! That would wipe out 1/4 of their budget which is half of their dependable income!” the newsletter said.

First, the city doesn’t have sole control over joint sales tax funds; any use of funds must be agreed to by the city and the county. The county operates the center and manages the distribution of the joint sales tax. The county’s 2023 budget allocated $690,236 for Senior Center operations and $325,000 for potential capital expenses.

The Senior Center is well-loved and well-used. Beyond services, it’s a place to have some fun and meet people.

The Senior Center’s doors would never close without a fierce fight, more dramatic than any spirited Snowdown sword fights.

As reported in The Durango Herald, Tom Sluis, spokesman for the city, said, “The whole thing is just weird.”

We agree.

And according to La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens, “Senior Center Director Vicki Maestas had nothing to do with the newsletter.”

Consider what Maestas likely has to deal with – calls from distraught seniors, media requests. Once that false narrative is out, it takes much time and energy to wrangle and dispute it. Some seniors may never learn the truth.

In our business, we’re interested in that moment when a falsehood takes on a life of its own and details are not double-checked.

Maybe wires were crossed in that elders planning meeting when Maestas was reportedly asked a hypothetical question: What does cutting funds to the Senior Center mean?

Add this to conversations at that meeting about a proposed independent library district, which would be funded by property taxes instead of the joint sales tax that currently funds the library, too. Maybe the idea of a new library district was considered a threat to the Senior Center. We don’t know. But those VOA employees had the conviction to tape newsletters to doors.

Much has been done to undo this mistake. VOA in Denver issued a statement to include, “We take seriously the actions of these two employees and deeply regret any impact this has had on individuals who depend upon the Senior Center and the many fine services it offers.”

The city firmly supports the Senior Center.

“My hope is that we all have good intentions,” Sluis said. “I’d like to think that everyone involved in these discussions has the city’s best interest at heart.”

Sluis emphasized “city,” in this sense means “everybody collectively, not the institution.”

There’s a level of responsibility in sharing information. We’re reminded of the old Telephone Game, with participants in a circle whispering along what they’ve heard. The final message is usually off enough to be silly and funny.

But there’s nothing funny about misinformation that concerns our seniors.