Updated, 4:33 p.m., comments from Scott Harris, Pat Wilson Pheanious, Andy Garfunkel.
NORWALK, Conn. – Tensions between South Norwalk’s mammoth community services agency and its much smaller roommate recently resulted in a call for Norwalk Democratic mayoral candidates not to attend the town hall organized by the bigger agency.
Common Councilman Warren Peña, chairman of the South Norwalk Community Center, sent an email to all of the mayoral candidates recommending that they avoid the Community Town Hall organized by Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, a source said. Three of the candidates confirmed it.
“I did get an email suggesting that it may not be a good idea to come,” Councilman Matt Miklave said.
Peña has been embroiled in a dispute with NEON over its relationship with SNCC. The two organizations share 98 South Main St., where the deed calls for SNCC to occupy the entire first floor and NEON to have the second floor, he said.
The SNCC does not pay any of the bills to the building, NEON interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said. NEON gets millions of dollars in federal grants, while SNCC’s budget is much smaller.
Miklave couldn’t say what was in the email.
“I didn’t really spend too much time reading it,” he said. “I had committed to coming, I thought it was a great idea to meet some voters so I just took it with a grain of salt.”
District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra arrived at the forum about an hour late. He acknowledged that he had heard from Peña, but said that it had no bearing on whether or not he would attend.
“Warren sent an email, recommending the candidates not come,” he said. “But that had no precedent on whether I was going to come or not. My whole concern was we didn’t have any information what this was. We didn’t have any details.”
Mangiacopra said Tuesday that he had not been invited to the forum-like town hall. That was a problem, he said, because he definitely wanted to be there and needed to plan ahead as he had other commitments.
“Certainly South Norwalk is a constituency group that has a lot of needs,” he said. “It’s something that we wanted to make sure that I could participate in. the first time we heard about it when we read about it in the newspaper yesterday.”
NEON interim President and CEO Pat Wilson Pheanious said Wednesday evening that Mangiacopra had been sent three emails about the event. NEON Communications Director Scott Harris has only confirmed two emails to Mangiacopra, sent through the website for his Norwalk’s Future Now.
Former Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel did not attend the event.
“I didn’t get notice until Norwalk Hour contacted me on Monday,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of it, really, not sure when the email went out but I don’t remember ever getting anything.”
Harris said he sent three emails to Garfunkel, on May 31, July 3 and July 5. He forwarded the May email to NancyOnNorwalk; it had been sent to Garfunkel for Mayor.
Garfunkel said Peña’s emails had nothing to do with his absence. His focus is getting the 775 signatures he needs to get in on the Sept. 10 primary.
“There’s no guarantee that I am going to be a candidate so debating the issues is not beneficial to my time,” he said, explaining that he already had plans for the evening.
Ernie Dumas, a member of the Garfunkel campaign, was there as his representative, he said.
Former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling said, “No comment,” when asked about the email.
Peña said Thursday that he had no comment.
“This is a non story, everyone knows how I feel about the leadership of NEON,” he said in an email.
Pheanious expressed exasperation Wednesday evening with the press and the printing of Peña’s letters to the editor on the topic of SNCC and NEON. She said, “There are so many things that are so factually untrue that it galls me.”
On Thursday afternoon, she said she was bewildered, dumbfounded and angry to hear that Peña tried to keep the candidates from coming, if it was true.
“I don’t know what to say about something about that,” she said. “This was a forum to help the community to be able to understand their choices. This was an opportunity for the mayoral candidates to touch bases with and hear from people who they might not ordinarily hear from. I guess I would really wonder what would be the motives of someone who would try to thwart that from happening.”
She said she didn’t want to speculate, but said she suspected that Peña’s email might have been the reason for Mangiacopra’s late arrival.
“I didn’t think he was coming,” she said. “I think it influenced him.”