By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE — For more than three decades, the name Joe Cotton has been synonymous with The Psychological Center, the mental health and substance abuse treatment agency headquartered at 11 Union St.
But Cotton, 72, who is battling lung cancer, was recently fired from his $120,000-per-year job as the center's chief executive officer. In Cotton's absence, Human Resources Director Dahainara Moran, the sister of Lawrence City Council President Frank Moran, was named the center's acting director.
Cotton's lawyer, Marsha Kazarosian, described her client's firing as "unfortunate" and "unwarranted." But members of the center's board of directors defended the termination, saying a change was needed.
"The board decided to move in a different direction," said James Driscoll, board president, noting that Cotton's contract stipulated he could be fired "without cause." He refused to say exactly why Cotton was fired.
Only Barbara Grondine, one of the center's seven board members, voted against firing Cotton, she said.
"I saw no reason to let him go," she said. "From where he took the center to where it is now, it's miraculous."
Kazarosian said she is now exploring legal options with Cotton, including breach of contract, as well as civil rights and Americans with Disability Act violations.
"This was his whole life, building up The Psychological Center," she said. "He put his all in The Psychological Center and wanted to do good, and has been doing good for 30 years."
"It's disappointing and has taken a huge toll on him," Kazarosian added. "None of it is fair."
The Psychological Center opened in 1970, and Cotton was hired as CEO in 1978. Today, the center offers an array of counseling services and shelter programs and serves 30,000 people annually in the Merrimack Valley. The center is funded by the state's Department of Substance Abuse Services, accepts insurance and private payment for services, and occasionally receives private grants.
The center provides individual and group services to area residents suffering from mental health problems and addiction. It also operates the Day Break shelter, a 30-bed shelter for people who are actively using drugs and alcohol, according to the center's website.
A licensed drug and alcohol abuse councilor, Cotton is an honored life member of the American Psychological Association, and an emeritus member of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. He has also taught at Merrimack and Cambridge colleges.
Cotton has occasionally written newspaper columns about mental health issues, including stress, coping and meditation.
Kazarosian said Cotton was "let go" by the center's board of directors on Oct. 28 after she wrote a letter to the board detailing his health issues, his intention to use some accumulated sick time and his "ability to continue to work" at the nonprofit agency.
"Regardless of his health issues, he was able to perform all of the functions of his job, Kazarosian said.
The letter was provided to the directors to make sure they understood the "depth and breadth" of his health issues, she said.
Three days after receiving the letter, "they fired him," Kazarosian said. His termination came 32 years to the day after he started at the The Psychological Center.
Cotton, she said, was "disappointed by the unsupportive nature of some of the people on the board."
Driscoll would not elaborate on the issues surrounding Cotton's firing and what the center's new direction would entail. Cotton, per his contract, will be paid his salary and benefits for six months, Driscoll said.
David DeFilippo, board vice president, echoed similar sentiments.
"There were issues, and we felt we should go in a different direction," he said. "He was removed as director in accordance with his contract."
DeFilippo said he would not comment on the issues "out of respect for Joe."
He explained that the function of the board of directors is to "direct the agency and make sure it's functioning properly."
Grondine, a psychologist who has known Cotton for 30 years, said she was "extremely disappointed with what happened." She credited Cotton with steering the center through difficult financial times, and felt he was very well respected by people in the Greater Lawrence area.
"I had every confidence in Joe Cotton. There was never a doubt in my mind that there was a problem, and I saw no reason to let him go," she said.
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