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NEON board reluctantly staying on for a while

Carvin Hilliard at a recent NEON board meeting, left; Brian Baxendale at Thursday’s meeting, right.

By Nancy Guenther Chapman

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s ridiculous, said a member of the embattled board of directors of South Norwalk’s anti-poverty agency, but he and the other volunteers who were in charge during the agency’s last, disastrous, year are still there.

Brian Baxendale, one of the remaining stalwarts of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now’s depleted board of directors, said he’d like to move on after serving through the scandal of a federal audit that alleged $400,000 in “mispent” federal money and the subsequent resignation of Executive Director Joe Mann. But Baxendale and other board members voted unanimously last week to extend the process of finding replacement board members – for themselves as well as to fill vacancies.

Meanwhile, the sole member of the public present at last week’s meeting, John Mosby, complained of corruption and a coverup.

The upshot? The board members are staying on, probably through February, NEON Executive Director and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said.

Why?

“We need quality candidates,” said Carvin Hilliard, a Common Council member (D-District B). “This is an unusual board in that we are looking out for the interests of poor people. From my experience, in Fairfield County, in this city, we don’t have enough people that are actually concerned about poor people. That’s what this board is representing.”

“You have to look at some of the things that happened, like Hurricane Sandy (that have set the search for new board members back),” said Chiquita Stephenson, NEON’s director of development and public relations. A planned public service announcement featuring Board Chairman Greg Burnett had been delayed by scheduling conflicts, she said.

Board members voted at their Thursday meeting to authorize a resolution changing the terms they agreed to when they merged in September with CTE, the Community Action Agency for the Greater Stamford Area. The terms had called for a new board within 90 days (by Dec. 31), but that was extended to 150 days.

“We should have new board members,” Baxendale said, adding that voting to extend their own tenure could look “pretty self-serving.”

“It’s supposed to be very important and yet we still don’t have new board members. … We’ve been going on for days on this, months on this. What do we need to do?”

Pheanious said there are already enough applicants to fill the 15- to 21-member board, but she wants a selection process to occur.

“You could just add people, but it seems to violate the spirit of the agreement of the merger, that contemplated an open process with the merger,” she said. “That process has been going on, but it has not resulted in the groundswell of applications that would allow us to have the kind of selection we’d like … unless you’re going to appoint every person that has applied, which doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me. It makes more sense to continue this state of limbo.”

Hilliard agreed. “We don’t want to just get candidates without a full selection,” he said. “I think with the more applicants we have, then we have more to choose from, hopefully the product is going to be better. That’s what we need here. … Once somebody’s on the board, they are on the board.”

One challenge: the board needs to be made up of people from different walks of life, including business people, elected or appointed officials, community leaders and, hopefully, those familiar with poverty.

“The ideal is to get people who are familiar with community action, who are familiar with the problems of the poor, and, in an environment like this, there are fewer of those than there are in some other places,” Pheanious said.

She said she had been recruiting people, but that was just to get people to fill out an application.

The agency is planning to hold town hall-style recruitment meetings:

  • Jan. 7 at Ben Franklin
  • Jan. 12 at Ely School
  • Jan. 28 at NEON
  • Jan. 31 in City Hall’s community room

“I’m hoping this will be resolved by the end of January,” Pheanious said. “Maybe that’s optimistic.”

She wants the current board to stay on through a transition period to advise new board members. “You all have had some really unique experiences,” she said, with a laugh.

Board member Doug Hempstead replied, “That’s an understatement.”

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