Tuesday, June 29, 1999

Activist’s article
miffs AARP

An assisted suicide article costs
isle woman a lobbying panel seat

Read the March 12 View Point article

By Crystal Kua


The nation's chief lobbying group for millions of older Americans has removed a respected and award-winning volunteer from its Hawaii lobbying committee because of a published opinion piece she wrote.

Supporters of Ruth Ellen Lindenberg say they can't understand why the American Association for Retired Persons punished Lindenberg for expressing her views on assisted suicide, an issue which the AARP doesn't have a position on and therefore prohibits its volunteer leaders from publicly commenting on.

"I think (the AARP's) position is crazy," said Richard S. Miller, a University of Hawaii professor of law emeritus, who has lobbied alongside Lindenberg at the state Legislature. "She should not be silenced on issues that the group hasn't taken a position on."

AARP officials in Hawaii, Seattle and Washington, D.C., either were unavailable or declined to comment on Lindenberg's dismissal. But the organization defended its decision to a state official.

"In your position as a government official, I know you will understand why an organization needs to have well-articulated procedures on how policy is formed, publicly debated and promoted," AARP Executive Director Horace Deets wrote in a letter to Hawaii Insurance Commissioner Wayne Metcalf, who chairs a task force on which Lindenberg sits.

"Specifically to your concern, we do not view a demand for Ms. Lindenberg's resignation as a violation of her civil rights."

When contacted last week, Lindenberg said she has great respect for the work AARP does with older Americans, but she also described what happened to her as unbelievable. "I think I was treated shabbily."

Lindenberg had been an AARP volunteer for more than seven years and in January was named Volunteer of the Year in Hawaii for her work on the group's State Legislative Committee. Her six-year term on the committee was due to expire this past May 31.

"She's very effective, very knowledgeable, does her homework and is very diligent," said Miller, who along with Lindenberg belongs to the Hawaii Coalition for Health. "The Legislature has come to respect her over the years."

Miller said Lindenberg was instrumental in passage of a patient's rights bill. She also has lobbied for affordable insurance premiums for seniors.

"Hawaii does not have a strong consumer advocate movement or presence at the Legislature with respect to issues affecting seniors in particular," said Metcalf, a former state lawmaker. "AARP, through Ruth Ellen, was often the principal spokeswoman for consumer protectiveness on such issues, which underscored her contribution to the legislative process."

The AARP has 129,000 members in Hawaii.

Lindenberg wrote an opinion piece on assisted suicides that was published in the Star-Bulletin on March 12 as a View Point column.

"It was an extremely balanced piece. She was giving both sides of it," said Miller, who also is a member of the Honolulu Media Council.

In the article, Lindenberg advocated legislation to allow assisted suicide, or assisted death, as she called it.

Lindenberg said she wrote the column as an individual and not as an AARP representative. Her connection to the organization was included in biographical information added by the Star-Bulletin. Editorial Page Editor Diane Chang explained that it is standard practice to identify column contributors and that Lindenberg, who has written past letters and columns in her capacity as an AARP representative, did not note on this particular piece that she was submitting it as an individual.

We would have run a clarification if we had known the information caused a problem, Chang said.

Less than two weeks after the column was published, Lindenberg received a call from Norma Collins, the state legislative representative to AARP's regional office in Seattle, Lindenberg said.

Collins asked for Lindenberg to resign because of the View Point column in the Star-Bulletin, Lindenberg said.

Lindenberg refused.

According to Lindenberg, Collins told her she would be terminated from her spot on the legislative committee if she did not resign.

A few days later, Lindenberg received a letter from AARP Hawaii State President Kenneth Stephenson telling her that if she did not resign, her appointment to the committee would be terminated immediately.

The letter also talked about an AARP national policy which prohibits volunteer leaders from making public statements on topics which the organization had not taken a position on.

"You clearly knew that AARP has not taken a position on this issue, yet you took a public stand," Stephenson, who also is a volunteer, wrote in his March 21 letter.

Contacted Thursday, both Collins and Stephenson declined to comment on Lindenberg's removal.

Collins and Stephenson, however, pointed out that Lindenberg's term on the committee was two months away from ending at the time she was removed. Lindenberg is not eligible for another term, Stephenson said.

Lindenberg said the near-completion of her appointment was never given as a reason for her removal. "That has nothing to do with it."

At the time of her dismissal, Lindenberg sat as an AARP-affiliated member on the Patient Rights and Responsibilities Task Force, which Metcalf chairs.

After she was terminated from her AARP position, Lindenberg contacted Metcalf to tell him she could no longer sit on the task force because she could not represent AARP.

Metcalf, on his own, then wrote a letter to Deets at AARP's national office in Washington, D.C., to ask that the AARP reconsider its decision to terminate Lindenberg because her loss on the task force would be irreplaceable in the midst of the legislative session.

Deets, who was unavailable for comment, responded in his letter that because Lindenberg is well-known, it may be difficult for members in Hawaii to separate the AARP's position on issues from Lindenberg's personal views.

One of the issues that sparked discussion within AARP on when its lobbyists can comment publicly was last year's same-sex marriage amendment, according to Deets. Local representatives committed the organization to a stance, even though the AARP had taken no position on the matter, he wrote.

"We're certainly not muzzling individuals who want to speak out on a number of issues," AARP spokesman Tom Otwell said by telephone from Washington, D.C.

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