(Correction – The percentage of the raise is 125, not 103)
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) interim President and CEO Chiquita Stephenson received a 125 percent pay raise last year, well before before she assumed her current position, according to a former member of the Board of Directors.
In addition, members of Stephenson’s family were hired by NEON, said former board member Susan Weinberger in a Monday email in response to questions sent to several former board members. She was the lone person to respond.
Stephenson did not respond to questions about her salary and the staff additions Sunday or Monday.
NancyOnNorwalk obtained the draft of an audit being conducted by the state Department of Social Services looking into the 501c3 organization’s finances. The report paints a bleak picture of the social service agency’s viability, and says “inappropriate” raises and staff additions were among the problems.
“The draft of the NEON Audit which has been disclosed on NancyOnNorwalk contains some specific details that I, as a board member, was seeking for the entire time I served on the board,” Weinberger said. “Much of this was either not made available to us, was in too general a format or not provided at all. Several times I asked for information and my questions were not answered. This is most unfortunate and became extremely frustrating.”
In an Oct. 8 meeting, board member Jack O’Dea defended Stephenson and pointed a finger at departed board members.
“If you ask somebody a question and they don’t give you the answer you’re looking for, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t answer the question,” he said. “It just means you got an answer you didn’t either understand or you didn’t agree with.”
Stephenson said at that meeting some board members were more positive than others.
“You have a huge segment of board members that are spending their time diligently coming up with solutions, connecting their resources and connecting the dots. You have other individuals that took the information, ask them what they have done to help with the information they got. You go ahead and give a balanced budget and somebody says, ‘Oh, are you trying to give us false numbers?’”
Weinberger said Stephenson got a big raise in pay despite the agency’s financial difficulty.
“I had learned some time ago that Ms. Stephenson’s salary increased last year from $60K to $135K, which represents about a 103 percent increase in pay,” Weinberger said. “I asked about this increase and did not get an explanation. Several of her family members had been hired to work at the agency that could not sustain regular payroll. It just did not make sense to me.
“While (I was) still on the board, Ms. Stephenson was the Chief of Staff/Chief Operating Officer,” Weinberger said. “That meant, in my mind, that she was the second in command and privy to the financial trajectory of the organization.”
Stephenson became interim president and CEO in early September, replacing Pat Wilson Pheanious, who the DSS placed at the helm for 18 months after former CEO Joe Mann was forced to resign. Weinberger joined the board late last spring and resigned in early October along with three other members. She was one of nine members who have quit the board since it was put together in May to help turn around the embattled agency.
Current board chairman Michael Berkoff recently gave Stephenson a vote of confidence, saying “I … firmly believe that Chiquita Stephenson, NEON’s acting CEO and president, who has only been in her new position since September 9, will bring a new energy and respect to the agency as we embark on this exciting new venture and challenge of revitalizing NEON.”
Several of the departed board members did not share that opinion, however, including Weinberger.
“I do recall that when I voted against the selection of Ms. Stephenson to become the acting president and CEO, one of our board members replied that she should be in the position. ‘After all, she is doing all the work of the CEO anyway and has been for a long time,’” she quoted the board member as saying. “I remain confused.”
NEON’s deadline to respond to the draft audit is today. The DSS will consider NEON’s reply and any supporting evidence before issuing a final audit report.
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