NORWALK, Conn. – On Labor Day – a scant month ago – Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) had 19 members on its freshly minted Board of Directors.
By Wednesday, Oct. 2, that number had dropped to 13.
Wednesday morning, NEON interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson received by email the resignations of four board members: TaShun Bowden-Lewis, Christopher Ruzzi, Jonathan Steinberg and Susan Weinberger.
Ruzzi had resigned his treasurer post Sept. 27, but remained on the board. He chose not to comment on his resignation then, or his resignation Wednesday.
The four resignations came just a day after Stamford businessman Michael Berkoff was elected chairman of the Board of Directors, replacing William Westcott, who had resigned from the board Sept. 23 after serving as chairman since May.
Stephenson released a statement Wednesday to announce the resignations.
“We thank the exiting board members for serving and we wish them all well and many blessings on their new endeavors,” she wrote.
“NEON is moving forward and remains focused and steadfast on delivering quality, effective and efficient programs and services to our most vulnerable community.
“As NEON is receiving numerous phone calls from families worried and concerned about the current federal government shutdown and the effect it will have on their families and households, our attention and focus remain on NEON’s mission.”
Steinberg, a state representative from Westport (D-136th), expressed frustration that he and his fellow board members could not make any headway is getting NEON on the right track.
“We all joined the board with the realization that (NEON) was in need of fundamental reform, both in its management and its systems,” he said. “We recognized it would be a difficult task.”
Steinberg said that, in the 3½ months he was on the board, “most off the time was spent with distractions,” either dealing with who would replace then-interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious and dealing with what he said were “week-to-week cash-flow crises, which we rarely knew of in advance.”
“Instead of talking about what programs we were going to put forward … we spent our time trying to get anything approaching accurate financial reports. It felt like we were mostly in the dark, that we were being manipulated.”
Steinberg also said that the board had become factionalized between those who supported Stephenson and those who saw a need for a management change.
Stephenson was the subject of a controversial torch-passing from Pheanious last month. Some board members wanted to give Stephenson, whose academic credits as stated on her resume were questioned and remain in dispute, to get an 18-month contract while a search was conducted for a permanent replacement, while others wanted to move on. Even the state Department of Social Services got involved, strongly urging NEON to make a nationwide search and offering to fund it, and to limit Stephenson to a six-month contract.
Weinberger, who said she “resigned from my position on the Board with deep regret and sadness,” said she voted against placing Stephenson in the position of acting president and CEO.
“I was excited to serve on the board of NEON and help take the agency to a new level of accountability, transparency and trust,” she said. “To me, that translated to new leadership in order to fulfill the vital mission of the agency. My optimism was dashed when it appeared that the current management team continually blames others for the state of affairs without taking responsibility. … I was very concerned that moving forward with a national search for a new leader has been stalled. I was frustrated that change is not forthcoming. I did not think there was anything else that I could possibly do given the multitude of issues NEON is facing.
“In my opinion, only a wholesale change in management will ensure the survival of NEON.
Steinberg said the remaining board members are not likely to rush to replace Stephenson.
“There are very few people (remaining) who are not in Chiquita’s camp,” Steinberg said.