William Southrey, the long-time executive director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, was terminated by the nonprofit’s board of trustees at a meeting Wednesday night.
An employee of the homeless shelter for more than 30 years, Southrey said he was notified by phone of his termination at about 9 p.m. Wednesday by the board’s Chairman Bob Stahler.
“As always they said they were doing it to protect me,” he said in a phone interview at about 9:30 p.m. “They do what they always do and never give me an explanation.”
Stahler confirmed Southrey’s termination, but declined to comment further. The board has not publicly stated its reasons for Southrey’s suspension last month, although it has ruled out criminal, financial and moral reasons.
The suspension came after a year of growing scrutiny of the mission and Atlantic City’s large homeless population. Opponents have argued that the mission’s presence in Atlantic City is not compatible with the family-friendly image it is trying to project to visitors, while supporters have said the mission serves a necessary function to the community and the transients who have long been drawn to the seaside resort.
After a more than four-hour meeting Monday, Southrey had been given two severance options. The executive, who worked his way up from a volunteer at the mission, said he didn’t know the status of the options.
He also had not been given any outline of the board’s reasons for his termination, although Southrey said he believes it may be the result of his challenging the mission’s board and other leaders.
“I don’t think they’re acting legally,” he said. “But that will be for the lawyers to look at.”
Southrey said he hopes the mission will be able to continue on, but he worried that the board may not be effective in advocating for the people the mission serves.
“When they leave the mission tonight and see people (sleeping) under the trailers, they will not do anything,” he said.
The board’s Wednesday night announcement drew a mix of responses.
“We’re going to have one less outspoken and strong advocate ... when it comes to folks at the bottom end of the economic spectrum,” said the Rev. John Scotland, of Brigantine, who runs Sister Jean’s Kitchen on Pacific Avenue. “That’s ultimately going to hurt those people.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he wished Southrey well and expressed concern about the lack of Atlantic City residents on the mission’s board.
“We still have the same issue with the board,” he said. “If the board is going to have the same policy, we have the same problem.”
Whelan has suggested that the mission relocate some of its services to mainland Atlantic County, while keeping a smaller office in the city.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the county is looking forward to working with whoever succeeds Southrey.
He also hoped that the mission will be a partner in curbing the number of homeless drawn to Atlantic City.
“The Rescue Mission, the way it is constituted right now, has a policy of serving over half of New Jersey’s homeless,” he said. “That is not sustainable.”
Tom Papademetriou, who organized a rally to support Southrey at Monday’s board meeting, said he thought the mission’s leadership was making a “big mistake.”
“The interests of the board are not necessarily reflecting the interests of the people they’re serving,” he said. “The mark of that will be (reflected by) what things change and how quickly they will change for the clients of the mission.”
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