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Letter: Lessons of NEON’s failure should not be lost on city officials, minority community

Reports of the pending demise of NEON — an agency serving substantial numbers of our least fortunate citizens and their children — ought to encourage some useful soul searching. By and large, NEON has been managed by members of our local minority community who have been very well paid.

Salaries upwards of $150,000 have been reported. NEON’s Board of Directors has encompassed a fairly wide swath of the community including Common Council members. However, it’s unclear whether, over time, the Board ever maintained the oversight expected of a board, despite reported management failures to provide even the most basic financial information. NEON’s management basically had a free rein to do as it pleased, at least until federal and state auditors intervened.

What lessons can be learned? First, NEON’s failures are largely the failures of Norwalk’s minority community, especially its elected city and state officials, community leaders and activists and citizens. NEON was a “community project” and its ongoing failures widely telegraphed over an extended period. Why the community’s leadership did not become actively involved in resolving NEON’s well-advertised managerial and financial woes remains puzzling. It raises the question of how our minority community can be more involved in local governance when it can’t gather a community effort to secure a well-functioning NEON serving the least advantaged members of our community.

Second, city officials have been criticized for “not stepping in.” But given the egregious and long-lasting levels of NEON’s managerial and financial incompetence, what could they realistically have done? Would appearances of the mayor at board and/or public meetings encouraged more professional behaviors? Not likely, most would say. But city officials could have insisted for audited previous year’s financial reports, and it is here that city officials were negligent. However, financial controls have not been Norwalk’s strong point. Witness the increase of city spending by more than 50 percent over the past two decades and top salaries of city workers.

Third, what might we do to encourage more competent managerial and financial governance in a successor agency to NEON? First, rather than sit back, city officials ought to demand quarterly audited financial reports. And publicize them. Second, the public needs to “pressure” elected officials from the minority community to take a much more active role in providing guidance.

Being involved must be the watchword. Not just sit on the sidelines. And it might be helpful if our mayor attended an occasional board meeting of the successor organization assuming a standing invitation to do so.

NEON has been embarrassment to the city of Norwalk. But first and foremost it’s a failure of the minority community’s collective leadership, especially it’s elected and appointed officials’ failure to be frontally involved in ensuring sound management of the organization. Commendably, Mayor Rilling has broadened the participation of our minority population in local governance. But the real task lies before us — to encourage our minority population and its leadership to take full ongoing responsibility to make sure that NEON’s successor organization competently delivers it’s designated services with public and private funding. Neither Norwalk nor Norwalk’s minority community should tolerate another ongoing failure of leadership. It’s long past time for Norwalk’s minority community to take front line responsibility for a well-functioning provider of services previously made by NEON. That’s real issue here from NEON’s failures.

Peter I Berman

Comments

18 responses to “Letter: Lessons of NEON’s failure should not be lost on city officials, minority community”

  1. The Norwalker

    I place the fault of NEON’s Destruction on the Board’s Shoulders. Unless NEON’s Monthly Financial Reports were totally false, the Board should have immediately known what actions to take to keep the Agency and the individual Programs solvent.

    If the financial reporting was the problem then Senior Management should be held responsible.

  2. Lifelong Teacher

    I agree with The Norwalker. Shame on all of them. The public needs to remember ALL of them.

  3. DistrictBDem

    Peter Berman hit the nail right on the head.

  4. Community

    In reading this article it makes a statement that African Americans have failed the community. What a raciest comment which to me reflects that whites lead better. Lets take a look at Poverty who have the CEO’s in non for profits been in our community mostly white and poverty has grown why because people make money off of peoples pain. Nancy you call yourself a journalist than do an accurate story which outlines the truth. Dont wait to do it when the big news stations start because then we will ask who is paying you.

  5. Community

    Also it starts from the top down. Everyone has their hand in it from all nationalities so just don’t pick one race.

  6. Casey Smith

    I don’t say this often, but….well done, Mr. Berman, well done.

  7. Let’s Be Honest!

    “Some” concerned members of the original Board formed a year ago asked continually for advanced copies of the financials before every Board meeting. They were either non-existent or prepared last minute and a mess. Further, one Board member suggested in a session with the former Mayor present that the financials be made public every month. Answer from administration: “we have tried that before. It does not work.” What did work?

  8. LWitherspoon

    @Peter Berman
    .
    Perhaps you didn’t mean it this way, but I too hear some racism in your statement that NEON’s failure is “a failure of the minority community’s collective leadership”.
    .
    Your logic seems to assume that only the minority community’s leaders – who happen to be minorities themselves – are the ones responsible for overseeing NEON. The truth is that we all have a responsibility as human beings to help low-income individuals by supporting their efforts to improve their lives. We all have a responsibility to demand that any non-profit organization receiving tax dollars treats that money with the utmost respect for the taxpayers who labored to produce those funds.
    .
    Further, as a general rule, when you’re talking about failure of any kind, it is unhelpful and offensive to focus on the skin color of those who you feel are responsible. Let’s be clear that failure has nothing to do with anyone’s skin color and everything to do with bad decisions and a lack of accountability.
    .
    We don’t have all the information regarding what happened, but it appears that NEON was not well-served by its board, which included people of all races.
    .
    Regarding your statement that City officials should have demanded financials from NEON – I believe that the BET did, and when credible financials were not forthcoming, City funds were cut off. In spite of losing $1.3 million per year in funding, NEON’s board and/or senior management apparently decided to leave its level of spending unchanged.
    .
    I hope all taxpayers will demand an investigation into who made these bad decisions, what possible justification there may have been, and who failed to exercise proper oversight. The answers to those questions would yield lessons applicable to the high-stakes game of spending taxpayer dollars on anti-poverty efforts.
    .
    There will surely be a little egg on everyone’s face in the wake of a thorough investigation. An incumbent politician or two might even fail to be re-elected. That’s a high price to pay, I know, but we must not miss this opportunity to learn from NEON’s failure.

  9. Kathleen Montgomery

    Thanks, Witherspoon, for a thoughtful response. Mr. Berman, to me your letter reads as an inflammatory statement. Those who perpetuated and continued this behavior at NEON are of many colors. Pointing fingers at the minority community serves no good purpose and actually serves to deflect the blame against the actual players in this fiasco. Each and every one of them should step up to the plate and, if they do not have the courage to own their decisions, we all as human beings need to insist legally that they are judged. All of us.

  10. WOW!

    Latinos represent the majority of the minority in the community. Yet, not one Board member or Executive management employee was Latino at NEON. Talk about racist!

  11. Piberman

    From the outset NEON was a “community effort” serving a segment of our minority community. Ordinarily the leadership of that community would be expected to serve on the Board of NEON to ensure its well being. And monitor and take an active interest in NEON’s proper functioning. Especially when impartial evidence arose of major improprieties. That the Board which did include community leaders repeatedly failed is well established. If we’re to obtain much better results in the future the community’s leadership must be more vigorously involved. That’s the lesson of NEON’s failure. Agencies serving the needs of our most disadvantaged citizens need both highly qualified managers and competent oversight by dedicated and diligent Board members including community leaders. NEON had neither and it ought to be a learning experience. For everyone. Serving on the Board – typically composed of the community’s leadership – ought to be an opportunity to serve with distinction to ensure that the available funds are properly used to improve the lives of our disadvantaged citizens. And if the Board believes that management is not fulfilling its mandated responsibilities such as requiring periodic audited financial statements the Board ought to know how to secure relief. Boards represent the community’s interest. That’s why we encourage community leaders and well qualified individuals to serve on Boards. The available evidence suggests that for years NEON’s Board failed to exercise “due diligence”. In the future the community and its leadership must work diligently to make sure that doesn’t happen again. NEON’s clients – among our most disadvantaged including children – need the community’s best efforts. NEON was a “systemic” failure over many years. We ought to resolve as a community and a City that it doesn’t happen again. That takes much better and more involved leadership from the community closest to serving NEON’s clients. Why should that demand be considered “unreasonable” ?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @PiBerman

      Where in the NEON charter does it say that the agency was established for minorities? I believe it was intended for people who were struggling and in need of social services regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. And the Board of Directors has been populated for years by a mix of whites and minorities, although Latinos seem to be missing from the mix. You have pointed out it the past, I believe, that Doug Hempstead and Bob Duff sat on the board. Brian Baxendale. Alan J. Rossi, Christopher Ruzzi, Susan Weinberger, Ed.D, William Westcott, Dale Ferguson, Mike M. Meyer, John J. O’Dea, Jonathan Steinberg, Valerie Lyons. Jack O’Dea. Mike Berkoff. All these and more. Some of these people were there for the ride. Some were true believers in the people running the day to day operations. Others grew frustrated and quite because their warnings and demands for action were ignored. So it was not just the minorities that caused the downfall. The board needed to take action and failed. So while we agree that the boards over the years failed in their duties, you cannot lay the blame at the feet of the minority community. NEON’s failure is attributable to a mix.

  12. Marjorie M

    Take heed ladies and gentlemen serving on Boards. You do not sit on these Boards so that you can claim that you serve the community. In the future, honestly serve the community!

  13. Piberman

    To our esteemed editor Chapman:

    Information from published sources suggest that NEON’s senior management, employees, clients and most Board members were minorities. Hence, a “community enterprise”. Reportedly the Board at no time objected to the $150,000 salary paid to NEON’s CEO. Reportedly at no time prior to public disclosures of financial and managerial malfeasance by state and federal authorities did any minority leader publicly raise either to the Board or otherwise concerns about management malfeasance. That suggests minority leadership was not closely involved with oversight either through Board membership or informally. Similarly after the investigations became known reportedly the minority leadership writ large did not take a pronounced role in restoring NEON’s well functioning. All in all NEON appears not yo have been “high ” on their activity agenda. That Neon’s Board has some non-minority members, even Councilmen, is besides the point. Reportedly the Board’s officers were largely members of the minority community.

    The issue here is how could NEON have so egregiously fallen through the cracks over many years without the minority leadership not being aware of skulduggery ? Unless it wasn’t high on their agenda. Reports of favoritism in employment reportedly circulated well before the investigations.

    Having lived in Norwalk now for aboard 4 decades I am not aware of any similar egregious failure in a local non-profit that comes anywhere close to what occurred at NEON over many years. NEON is really an isolated case of failed responsibility. Witness the long delays by the Board in firing a failed CEO after the investigations of malfeasance became public.

    So we owe it to our selves to ask why NEON – a community activity involving minority leadership, employees and mostly Board members serving minority disadvantaged children failed so utterly and over a substantial period. As best I can assess the situation without full knowledge the relevant community’s leadership weren’t paying attention. Moreover, when the reports became known they didn’t “jump into action” to rectify matters “moving heaven and earth”. Hence I consider it a fair assessment to demand much better and committed involvement by the community’s leaders in the future. Unless it was a “board mistake” and nothing was learned.

    Serving on boards is a “public trust” and for non-profit boards members are protected by public statute from most liabilities. At day’s end the question is where was the community’s leaderships during NEON’s failures and what did they do when such failures became public knowledge ? We expect better, much better, from our City’s appointed and elected leadership. So should the community most closely affected and involved with NEON. Let’s hope the lessons are learned. By everyone in our City. So that we never have such failed responsibilities by those serving the “public trust” and those with leadership roles.

    When Mayor Rilling appointed the Board Chairman who oversaw several years of NEON’s failures to the important BET charged with overseeing City finances we had another chance to see failed leadership. NEON ought go have been one of Norwalk’s proudest accomplishments. Instead it was an embarrassment of major proportions. That its clients were among our least advantaged and children makes it more important than ever why and how it failed. Anyone who claims it was just a “failed board” is blowing smoke.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @our esteemed Prof. Berman

      Let me put it another way. It’s people, professor. It’s not — or should not be — “them” and “those” and us. People failed. Not black people or brown people or white people. Just people. We all need to stop thinking in terms of color and start thinkingmin terms of people, performance, responsibility. Those who continue to classify everything by race are doomed to continue running in mud.

  14. Piberman

    Not about race at all. The issue is about a community’s collective leadership that allowed a major abuse of the public trust to slip through their fingers. There is no other example of this happening in modern Norwalk for any community. It’s an aberration. . The leadership of the community served by NEON failed their collective responsibility. So we ought to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s all about leadership within one of our communities. The community served by NEON deserves much better leadership to make sure that those most disadvantaged receive full value from public and private monies. Not bloated salaries or employment favoritism. No one is blaming the community served by NEON. Just their leadership for failing to ensure NEON’s success.

    Norwalk’s changing demographics point to a non-white majority within several years. All the more reason to focus attention on the NEON leadership failure. Our emerging citizenry majority must make sure that leadership failures such as NEON cannot ever happen again. Otherwise their abilities to pursue the American Dream remain impaired. Who among us would not want the future Norwalk to prosper mightily for all peoples with inspired leadership for all.
    We need a vigorous commitment to make certain that a NEON like failure cannot never occur again in our city. Why is that an unreasonable demand ?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @PiBerman

      We are certainly in agreement on the bottom line — the situation is an embarrassment. Measures need to be taken to be sure those in need have access to help, that the money intended to help those people is spent on that purpose, and the administration of whatever CAP agency replaces NEON is closely monitored and held accountable.

  15. Bill Dunne

    Mark… You’re perfectly correct in your last comment. Sadly, however, one of our two major political parties, including some of its local members, has become dedicated to and practiced in the art of division. They don’t want us to see each other as people, as individuals. They want us to see only groups to be corralled according to ethnicity, gender, religion, and other superficialities, and set against each other. It’s their way of maintaining power. Can you guess which party that is, Mark?
    .
    That said, Piberman is just pointing out the obvious: that NEON’s leadership for years was never held accountable for its miserable management and oversight. Why that happened is an interesting question, and Piberman deserves credit for probing for answers.

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