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Marjorie Blankstein

Yhetta Gold



by Rhonda Spivak, October 27, 2011

It is my respectful opinion that the Board of the Simkin Centre desperately and urgently needs to reform, or else I fear that the institution will suffer more harm and damage than it already has. Let me be clear. I am not at all pleased that Harvey Berkal has taken the rare step of launching a private prosecution against the Simkin Centre.

I would like to do everything possible to find a way to have that proceeding adjourned. Having been involved in both civil and criminal litigation as a  lawyer for years, the last thing I want to see is my community being torn apart in the Court system rather than using its human and financial resources productively to make the Simkin Centre the best nursing home possible. This is why I sincerely hope that the Board of the Simkin Centre will announce immediately and without any further delay, that it will democratize its Board structure such that members of the Jewish community at large can vote at the General Annual Meeting.

My hope is that the Simkin Centre Board will institute an annual membership that can be purchased by members of the community for a nominal fee, as is the case in the Louis Briar Home in Vancouver. That is a model that I think makes sense.

At last night’s Annual General Meeting, about 100-125 people, including Centre staff, heard from Brian Lerner, a lawyer with Aikins Law that he had been hired by the Board to “clean up the terminology” and make the by-laws easier to read. Neither substance nor content was altered. In other words, Board reform has not been instituted: the Board will continue to self-select its members, and will not be accountable to the community which it serves.

Debra Mayer was one of the first at the meeting to express her astonishment that only existing Board Members could vote at the Annual General Meeting. I asked for a count of the number of voting members present so I could accurately report that there were in fact only ten people in the room with voting privileges. All ten voted in favour of the revised by-laws which do nothing to change the existing system.

There were many others, aside from those who spoke and asked questions at the meeting, who clearly wanted Board reform. I believe that there are many people like myself that understand that the Simkin Centre cannot disenfranchise its community through self-selection of its Board members in this day and age.

That is why it is so unfortunate that instead of asking their legal counsel Brian Lerner to spend the last few months assessing alternate governance models with a view to updating their by-laws substantively, the Board of the Simkin Centre wasted its energy and resources cleaning up by-laws that soon enough will need to be reformed completey anyway.

It would be in the best interests of the Board of the Simkin Centre to announce that they will engage in extensive Board reform and adopt a more inclusive model. This announcement should include the process to review various models and implement democratization effective immediately. If they did that, there would be many in the community, including myself, who would ask Harvey Berkal to adjourn his prosecution for a defined period of time to allow the Board to implement a new governance model.

This action would provide a mechanism for people who want a constructive way to work within the system to improve service delivery and quality of life for residents. As it is, critics of the Simkin Centre have no way to get on the Board to effect change from within.

Harriet Berkal, Larry Sarbit, Elaine Berliner and Marsha Palansky applied to be on the slate of new Board members, and were rejected by the nominating committee. Under the current governance structure, they cannot be nominated by the people attending the Annual General Meeting.

Had these individuals been able to stand for election, and had they won, they would have been able to join the Board to act in the best interests of the institution they were elected to serve, at the Board table rather than through the court system.

Moreover, with more democratization, members of the Jewish community who attended a general annual meeting like that held last night would be able to express their approval or disapproval of a path that any given Board has chosen, by re-electing its members or removing them and electing others.

Last night, those in attendance expected to hear that this Board of the Simkin Centre is committed to putting through reforms without delay. That did not occur. The writing has been on the wall for months now, and the failure to read it shows a grave error in judgment.

Now, that Harvey Berkal has initiated a private prosecution, I hope that the Board of the Simkin Centre will find out what actions are required for Berkal to agree to stop the process.

Certainly, one of the essential things Harvey Berkal will ask for will be Board reform. Hopefully, he would agree to adjourn the prosecution to let this occur. In the end, this Board is going to be forced to institute reforms; wouldn’t it make sense to commit to this now, and avoid the damage of a private prosecution or civil litigation?

The most astonishing thing I heard last night was from Board Chair Phyllis Spigelman, who was asked by a member of the audience whether the Board had considered instituting the Louis Briar model of having members of the community pay $35.00 for membership to vote at an Annual General Meeting. She answered that the Board had not considered that topic. I was left with the distinct feeling that this Board is not committed to reform at all, and I am of the view that we are headed for a train wreck.

Near the end of the meeting, Allana Kull, Director of Care, indicated that the Simkin Centre plans to fundraise to hire more nurses' aids and a volunteer co-coordinator. My question on how anyone in the institution could reasonably expect the community to donate money to the Simkin Centre while being told donors will not have a vote at the Annual General Meeting was met with applause.

After the Board adjourned the meeting, l called on the people in the room to stand if they thought the Board needed to reform such that they should be allowed to vote. Were there members of the Board sitting near the front of the room who did not turn their heads to see who in the crowd was standing to express their desire to be given the right to vote ?

I counted 19 people who showed support for democratization. I am not surprised that the number wasn’t larger since there were many people in the room with family members resident at the Simkin Centre, and arguably who would not want to risk being identified as troublemakers, or as critics of the Board members. Other people had begun to leave already. Others were staff of the home. I heard from many people afterwards outside the room, including Dr. Michael Eskin, who said that of course the Board had to be opened up, be representative, and not function as a closed shop.

It would have been very interesting to see what the vote would have been if everyone present had a secret ballot. My gut instinct is that there would have been a solid majority of people in that room who would have expressed an opinion in favour of substantial Board reform, and sooner rather than later.

Two individuals who indicated they wanted democratization of governance at the Simkin Centre are very well known, respected, and senior leaders of the Jewish community – Marjorie Blankstein and Yhetta Gold.

I humbly suggest to the Board of the Simkin Centre that if these two pillars of the Jewish community took the time to attend the Annual General Meeting and stand against the course you have chosen to take, it is time to wake up and change course. And if there were board members who did not turn around to see who was standing to express the need for Board reform, they would have missed the fact that Blankstein and Gold were in fact doing so.

Yhetta Gold told me for the record afterward that she was “appalled” at the way the Simkin Centre is governed. Yes, she used the word “appalled”. I think it would be a very good idea for the Board of the Simkin Centre to talk to some of the families who have been large donors to the institution and ask them how they feel about not being able to vote at the Annual General Meeting. Leonard Asper sits on the Simkin Centre Board of Governors, a symbolic position which does not  entitle him to a vote. Will the Board ask him if he agrees with Blankstein and Gold, or if he would prefer to continue to be disenfranchised?

I have no doubt that there will be many people in the community, including well known philanthropists, reading this editorial and wondering how they would feel if they were Marsha Palansky. She is in possession of a report by the Manitoba Protection of Persons in Care which showed her mother had been subject to abuse due to physical neglect at the hands of the Simkin Centre, and was then advised she could not vote at the Annual General Meeting.

Love Thy Neighbor as Thy Self—it’s the basis of Judaism. In my respectful view, not one of those ten people who voted last night has the moral authority to deny Marsha Palansky a vote after what she has been through. Not one.

I would suggest to the ten Board Members who were given a vote last night not to expect that too many people in this community will try to convince Harvey Berkal out of his private prosecution unless they commit to real reform at the Board level.

I think it is a very dangerous strategy to delay Board reform any longer than has already been done. There will be calls for your dismissal as a Board of Directors-it is only a matter of  time. And it will tear our community apart. All the communication consultants you could possibly hire, and any advertisements you could possibly take out, will not put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

I hope the Board of the Simkin Centre, with its new members, including two recent former Presidents of the Jewish Federation, Dr. Ted Lyons and Jonathon Kroft, will have the wisdom and good sense to ensure that the Board implements reform properly and quickly. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many rabbis open up future Annual General Meetings with a prayer— G-d help us all

Note: I will be writing an upcoming article about the status of the ongoing leadership review of the Simkin Centre by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This leadership review is referred to in the Manitoba Protection of Persons in Care report  and  is something that is separate and apart from the 26 Standards Review.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.