Editorial: City should call for NEON probe, not just threaten

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia held a press conference Tuesday morning to slam Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) for its lack of compliance with a federal order to hand over the reins of the Head Start program to an interim management company, and to pressure the anti-poverty agency to do so.

We applaud the mayor for taking a strong stand against NEON’s actions.

We are troubled, though, by the city’s threat to call in the U.S. Attorney, the Connecticut Attorney General and chief state’s attorney to conduct immediate investigations into NEON’s financial improprieties.

Why has this not been done already? If the mayor and his corporation counsel, Robert Maslan, believe there is just cause to call in state and federal investigators, he has an obligation to do so. Instead, they are using the threat as coercion to try to scare NEON into cooperating with an order from the federal government agency that funds the Head Start program.

The reluctance to take decisive action in this regard is especially surprising given the mayor’s demonstrated willingness, through his corporation counsel and private attorney, to call in the state to investigate matters of much less significance with much less cause.

We urge the mayor to do the right thing and, instead of using a legal threat as coercion, to request the investigation. Frankly, we wonder why it was not done months ago.


14 responses to “Editorial: City should call for NEON probe, not just threaten”

  1. WHAT?

    My God these NEON people just wont stop. Berkhoff says the Headstart shutdown is the result of “poor planning on the part of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the City of Norwalk.”
    Did the feds and the city fail to plan that NEON would take federal tax dollars restricted solely for the purpose of paying vendors for Headstart expenses only and not be able to explain why the vendors went unpaid?
    The more people understand about how the Headstart grant works, the more people will realize that NEON’s explanations are an insult to their intelligence. Again, the feds approve ‘x’ dollars for (take just one example) the lunches at Ely. Suddenly, there are no lunches because the vendor wont supply them anymore because they are owed over 200k for Headstart lunches they have not been paid for.
    The issue is simple, what did you do with that money please NEON? Let’s see, it is because of the government shutdown, DSS and the mayor. You know, many believe that when people offer several drastically different reasons to explain a problem, it means no one of the answers is the truth.
    Or, you can play the 6-minute video of Ms. Stephenson at City Hall the other Night and listen to her completely rambling, nonsense, explaining that “no one understands a child like its own mother.” OK, so where is the federal money to pay for the meals then? Are you saying the mothers took it? Or, are you saying that the mothers knew the kids weren’t actually hungry anyway so it’s all right? I mean really, what are you saying? Where’s the money?

  2. Mike Mushak

    Where has Moccia been all these years while NEON self-destructed? Why wait till the final hour to pretend you’re showing leadership? This is absurd.
    Where has Moccia been the last several years while I have been calling for the by-laws of the Zoning Commission which I serve on to be followed, including more accountability and transparency by staff, required financial statements to be produced at monthly meetings by staff (which hasn’t happened in years), no performance reviews since Moccia has taken office, staff refusing to answer questions which interferes with the ability of the Commission to make informed decisions (interfering with applications and exposing the city to expensive lawsuits and appeals), and the refusal if staff to provide their professional credentials to the Commission and the public?
    All of those were similar issues common to the troubled history of NEON, which Moccia is now calling for formal state investigations to expose! The by-laws of the ZC have been ignored (as if the laws are a big joke) by Moccia’s hand-picked appointees like former chair Emily Wilson (running for Council in District E) and current chair Joe Santo, the famous obstructionist with a decades-history of supporting bad planning decisions and an arrogant attitude towards the public, who the GOP majority just re-elected yet again like a bad recurring nightmare, of course after Moccia refused to reappoint the competent and professional Adam Blank this past July because Moccia said he wanted “new blood” on the ZC. Santo has been on various commissions including the ZC since the late 80’s, when Reagan was president.
    Cronyism and ignorance of by-laws. According to Moccia, worth investigating at NEON, but not on his own hand-picked Zoning Commission. Unbelievable.

  3. M Allen

    File the charges Mike. You keep making allegations. File the charges. Take the steps. Make it official. Or stop talking about it. You have the power to start the ball rolling on an investigation. Do it.
    As for NEON – threat, no threat. The place is in crisis, existential crisis. Is the Mayor simply damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t? So when it completely implodes you’ll be able to rant on about how it imploded because of Mayor Moccia? Perhaps you would prefer it imploded so you could say that. He doesn’t win your vote if he saves it out of his own wallet or it burns to the ground. He doesn’t win your vote if he had funded it fully and our tax dollars went the way of the other dollars down there. In the end, we would have ended up at the same place, just maybe further down the road. Because of the actions of NEON. Mismanagement. By a non-governmental entity. One where if Mayor Moccia had taken decisive action would possibly have been seen as attacking the poor or minorities or whatever the opposition wouold have made it into at the time. And you know it would have happened just like that. Like I said, damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
    With regard to NEON, were you calling for hard measures to be taken in the past? Or were you more focused on bike lanes, zoning issues and whether Emily Wilson was flipping you the bird under the table? This is not the City of Norwalk’s fault. It is not the Mayors fault. This path was charted before that. More could have been done by a great many people. But now that we are here, in the moment, what do you want to happen? Save it or let it burn and blame the Mayor?

  4. A

    What Mushak forgets is that NEON pulled strings with the Democrats up state and got Norwalk out of NEON. Back in the day the Mayor and council appointed 1/3 of NEON’s Board, but as the Mann problems started NEON got its charter changed by the State, so Norwalk as a city had no control of the Board and NO REPRESENTATION. Oops Duff, Morris and Perone let that happen???? Now the Democrat state delegation is hiding

    Moccia was right to cutoff funding to this corrupt organization. But Harry has promised to give them back head start funding. The fact that Mushak, an ardent Harry man is defending NEON is just more proof that the taxpayers and kids will loose if Harry gets in.

  5. Oldtimer

    With the mayor controlling the purse strings on 1.3 million a year, he had enormous opportunity for constructive leadership and he let it slip through his fingers. At least he will be able to brag about the 2.6 million in City grants he saved by cutting NEON off and hastening it’s demise. He will be remembered for what he did to kill off NEON, and the few good things he ever did will fade from memory.

  6. M Allen

    Since you’re double posting in both articles, I’ll knock off the same copy and paste rebuttal
    “A little constructive leadership then could have avoided all this drama and put Moccia in a position to brag about his accomplishments, rather than make empty threats a few days before election.”
    The timing is what it is right now for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly because it has come to a critical moment and time of crisis. But let’s be completely honest here: do you actually believe the Mayor could have avoided all this drama and be able to brag about taking a heavier hand than he did with NEON a couple of years ago? My personal belief is the Mayor would have been labeled in the most severe terms by his opponents and the allies of NEON for coming down on the “anti-poverty” agency that represents so many low-income and minority clients. So while today his opponents can blame him for not doing enough 2 years ago, the fact is they would have blamed him 2 years ago for much more interesting and headline inducing reasons. Maybe its just me but the Mayor was damned if he did then or damned if he does now. Well played.

  7. LWitherspoon

    I think you are correct that calling for an investigation is largely an empty threat, unless there is newly public information from the State’s audit that suggests criminal activity. Did NoN ask the Mayor or Mr. Maslan at the Press Conference why they believed an investigation is warranted now, and why they didn’t call for one sooner?
    Even if the audits did show some criminal activity, presumably the federal or state agencies who were doing the auditing would initiate the investigations. They are the funders and so they are the parties who were harmed.
    The real threat by Mayor Moccia and Counsel Maslan from the press conference sounds like legal action to enforce the terms of the City’s lease to NEON for Nathaniel Ely school, which requires that the building be used for Headstart. Now that the federal government has pulled funding for Headstart, NEON has fallen out of compliance with its lease.
    @Mike Mushak
    I know we’re in the waning days of a political campaign, but I don’t think it’s accurate to blame the Mayor for this, however much you’d like to. The City was the first funding agency to pull its financial support and demand that NEON get its financial house in order before funds were restored. That move was prescient and now the state and federal government appear to have done the same.

  8. LWitherspoon

    @M Allen
    You’re spot on about damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. I seem to recall an incident reported by NoN some months back where the NEON board went into executive session with the Mayor. NoN reported that raised voices could be heard through the door. At the time the Mayor was criticized for attacking NEON. We never did hear what they were in conflict about. Could it have had something to do with getting their fiscal house in order?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ LWitherspoon

      I truly wish we could say more bout things we are told off the record, including, occasionally, what went on in executive sessions. We will not breach journalistic and personal ethics, though. There are things we know, things we are pretty sure of, and things where we put 2 and 2 together and make a supposition, and we are talking about many different areas. But we are held to a different standard than commmentors who can create their own narratives and participants who choose how they will spin a public story and to whom they will give the information. That said, all we know strongly informs our opinions and coverage. In this case, we believe the mayor has protected the taxpayers’ money but should have been working on alternatives to assist Norwalk citizens in need. And, if he truly believes a legal investigation is warranted, he could not use it as a bargaining chip. If he suspects criminal activity, he should call in the investigators now.

  9. Mike Mushak

    A, whoever you are, misrepresented what I said, and seemingly didn’t bother to read my post at all! Where did I defend NEON? I never said anything like that. I simply said Moccia’s actions are too little too late, he showed lousy leadership, and that he has a double standard when his own P and Z Department and Zoning Commission under GOP leadership is full of the same nonsense that NEON has reportedly had, specifically lack of financial statements, questionable qualifications of leadership, and by-laws not being followed. Yet Moccia now wants a state investigation to NEON but pretends all is well over at his own dysfunctional P and Z Department.
    And L Witherspoon, where did I blame the mayor for this? I simply said he didn’t show leadership earlier when it could have made a difference, instead of now at the end when the process is so completely messed up and the damage is done. Is that blaming him? Perhaps indirectly, but we will never know since he never even tried, and I certainly never thought NEON’s problems were Moccia’s fault. Its just that he could have helped fix them to prevent this current crisis, as mayor, but it looks like he didn’t even try, except pull the funding. I think you are overly sensitive to someone blaming the mayor perhaps.

  10. Oldtimer

    M Allen
    If the mayor, or anybody else, went to NEON two years ago and told them we will give you the long established 1.3 million each year grant, but we need to put a condition on the grant, the condition being; we will appoint a competent CFO and he/she will keep track of every dime, coming in and going out, and make monthly reports to your board, and to the mayor’s office, do you think anybody at NEON would have refused the condition, and the money ? He could have been a hero and be now taking credit for saving NEON, instead of threatening to tell the State and the Feds what to do a few days before election, as NEON goes down the drain.

  11. Jlightfield

    For once can the self appointed guardians of partisan bickering stop trying to spin this away from the real failures of leadership here?
    1. Neither the Mayor nor City Hall have any obligation towards NEON other than providing opportunities for City grants and free space at city owned properties. They key word is opportunity. NEON management is to blame for its failure to request grant funds that would be met favorably. The City and by extension the Mayor failed to provide City representation on the board to ensure oversight of the city’s contribution of building assets.
    2. The board failed to hold NEON management accountable for finances. To start with 1.8 million in the bank, to not draw down 500k in head start funds, to not pay vendors clearly supplying head start services etc. is a a series of negligent acts.
    3. NEON became an agency in crisis by NEON management ignoring state and federal program administrators and for creating unrealistic forecasts all the while not paying attention to current grant obligations. The exodus of board members was a direct result of months of dubious financial records.
    4. Bruce Morris, current district B state rep and employee of the board of Ed seems to have made board recommendations. Note that the state of Connecticut is not solely represented by State Rep Morris, and there seems to be a significant question as to whether the board is comprised of the qualified representation it needs to be a city community anti poverty agency. This situation has been in play since the beginning of the year.
    5. The people left to suffer are the clients serviced by NEON. This last point is the most important one right now as it is clear that NEON management is incapable of addressing core functions singled out as deficient by state and federal audits.
    6. NEON is an agency that serves multiple cities including Stamford. It is not just a Norwalk issue to resolve and certainly a phone call or two to Stamford, might result in a cohesive front to achieve a better resolution to this crisis.

  12. LWitherspoon

    Did NoN ask the Mayor or Mr. Maslan at the Press Conference why they believed an investigation is warranted now, and why they didn’t call for one sooner?
    @Mike Mushak
    Your track record as an anti-Moccia partisan is well-established. When you ask “where has he been all these years while NEON self-destructed?” that’s obviously assigning blame for the current situation to the Mayor. You also conveniently leave out the fact that the City’s grant committee pulled funding from NEON before the state and federal government did.
    I suspect the only sensitivity in play here is your oversensitivity to anyone who dares question the steady stream of negative things you say about the Mayor. Some of us, including me, don’t believe that one team has all the answers. But best of luck to you in your dogged attempts to win one for “Team Democrat”. You’re sort of a Honey Badger in that regard. If you win, I’ll be the first to cheer all those new bike lanes that Harry has made a vague yet somehow ironclad promise to install, but as usual I’ll be grumbling long and loud at tax hikes or anything that looks like a giveaway to the municipal employee unions.

  13. Norwalk Lifer

    I noticed in JLightfield’s comments that the concern for those who depend on NEON came fifth; that speaks volumes

    Norwalk Lifer

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