Departing NEON directors cite mangement, ‘factionalized’ board

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Susan Weinberger expresses an opinion at a July Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now board meeting as the board’s vice president.

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.


5 responses to “Departing NEON directors cite mangement, ‘factionalized’ board”

  1. Vigilant

    Representative Bruce Morris does not serve our community well when he intervenes in Hartford to support the continued leadership of someone who has not demonstrated her ability to lead a large, complex, troubled agency like NEONm, and who after many months has not been able to disprove allegations she misrepresented her educational credentials. This follows Rep. Morris’s successful effort last summer to help the DTC chair maintain her leadership position after a situation which should have led to her resignation.

  2. The Norwalker

    This agency’s only focus at this time should be how to mend Bridges with the Mayor of Norwalk.

    Also the Mayor of Norwalk should remember that his delay of funding is hurting the citizens of his city as well as the surrounding towns. As of last year the fate of NEON also jeopardizes families in Stamford and Greenwich.

  3. dawn

    Are you kidding me.
    The only thing that NEON needs to do is
    1. find a qualified person to direct the agency
    2. hire an accounting firm to fix their books.
    It has become blaringly apparent that they do not want to fix the books. They are activly fighting against it. All they do is play the blame game.
    Mayor Moccia is the only one around with the guts to say NO MORE!!!

  4. Piberman

    We should remember that until mismanagement issues surfaced most NEON Directors were City Councilmen. After they resigned protesting they were unawares of mgmt failures new Directors have come and gone. But new mgmt. remains in place. The litmus test seems to be supporting mgmt.
    Backwards from the usual arrangements where mgmt. serves at the pleasure of the Board.
    One wonders where are the Democrats who oft explain a special affinity for the needy. Or leaders of the diversity community. Or the Church Leaders. Even new candidates for the Council avoid getting engaged with NEON as do our Hartford legislators and City government writ large. Even our well paid unions. And the candidates.

    Looks like the real NEON message is – “you’re on your own”. Even in an election year. City and legislative officials stumbled over each other to force the resignation of NEON’s past CEO. And then they retired from the field hoping the Tooth Fairy would rescue NEON.

    Maybe NEON isn’t solvable by our current “public servants and elected officials “. None of the candidates seeking public office have NEON on their agenda. So here’s an opportunity.

  5. Oldtimer

    With the size of NEON, it would seem that hiring a qualified manager, with full authority to hire and fire, would be a no-brainer. That person’s first hire would be an accountant to set up a book-keeping system that could be easily maintained with strict controls on who could spend, requiring two signatures on every check, one being the boss’s. No cash spending would ever be permitted, except for a small cash fund tightly controlled by the boss, for emergencies only.
    Until that happens and there is a complete cultural change regarding cash management, NEON will not be able to recruit and keep effective board members, as demonstrated be recent resignations of board members who felt they had no real authority. The board needs to assert itself.

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