NEON CEO fires back at Peña, says Norwalk was her hardest job ever

Pat Wilson Pheanious came to Norwalk under a contract with the Connecticut Department of Social Services. She is serving as interim CEO and president of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) in a contract with NEON, which ends Sept. 9, she said.

Updated 6:36 p.m., clarification from Pheanious regarding meetings with Mayor Richard Moccia.

NORWALK, Conn. – The soon-to-be-departing temporary leader of South Norwalk’s embattled anti-poverty agency said Thursday she can’t understand why her “hard working” underlings are under attack and why local public officials seem to want to destroy a public agency that serves 11,000 underprivileged residents.

“I have never worked in a place like Norwalk and had the experiences I’ve had here,” said Pat Wilson Pheanious, interim CEO and president of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). “It’s a very different place.”

Pheanious, who was manager of Denver’s Department of Human Services from September 2008 to July 2011 and served as commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Social Services, said “everyone” in Norwalk seems to be walking around with an agenda. Politicians want NEON to fail, she said, in spite of the lack of resources for their constituents in South Norwalk.

“I’ve never seen the motivation for that,” she said. “I don’t get it. … The work we do is so critically important and people need the services so badly. It angers me.”

Pheanious was on a rant, caught off guard by the news that Councilman Warren Peña, chairman of the South Norwalk Community Center Board of Directors, had sent an email recommending that Democratic mayoral candidates not to come to a community town hall-style meeting that NEON and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had organized for Wednesday.

“Instead of looking at what an agency like NEON is trying to do in the community, somebody is trying to turn this into something about NEON,” she said. “The motivations of some people are very questionable, and I have to say he’s one of them. … It doesn’t seem very community-minded to me; does not seem to be respectful of the people in the community.”

Peña declined to respond to Pheanious’ comments.

NEON and SNCC are tenants in common at 98 South Main St. Peña has been saying the community center is deeded the rights to the first floor and NEON is deeded the rights to the second floor. Pheanious, an attorney, said that is incorrect.

The relationship between Peña and NEON leadership has become openly hostile.

“Who are they serving?” Pheanious asked of the community center. “They have no programs, the door is closed. I am sure they have done fine things over the years, but at the moment, I don’t see what they’re doing.”

Norwalk NAACP NEON mayoral forum 073113 052
NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson works nights and weekends in spite of having four children to raise and health problems, interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said.

Peña recently wrote a letter to the editor criticizing Pheanious’ recommendation that Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson be made interim CEO and president when Pheanious departs in early September. He said Pheanious had been coerced, and that Stephenson has no integrity, a comment that stemmed from news reports that called Stephenson’s educational credentials into question.

“That’s ridiculous. I don’t know of anybody that can strong-arm me,” Pheanious said.

She followed that with the comment that her 18 months at NEON are “bar none, the hardest job of my life, that includes being (DSS) commissioner.”

Pheanious said the agency had decided not to answer that and other letters to the editor.

“It would start a controversy,” she said. “Chiquita wrote one letter. All the rest of (the animosity) has flowed from there.”

Although Peña declined last week to respond to Pheanious’ comment, on Saturday he again criticized NEON after being asked about a summer camp run by Donna Wimpfheimer.

The literacy camp had been planned for three weeks but ended after two due, in part, to the animosity between NEON and the community center.

Peña also said that the community town hall-like event, organized by NEON, was poorly run. Two of four Democratic mayoral candidates said they had not gotten advance notice of the event. NEON Communications Director Scott Harris said he sent multiple emails to the men, beginning on May 31.

“Nothing goes smoothly or is handled with care, nor exudes professionalism/true leadership,” Pena said in an email. “Two prime examples of why the current leadership cannot continue forward.  I cannot be the only politician or community leader in this city voicing my opinion about who these people really are. It is time they step up regardless if we are in an election year.  What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.”

The NEON Board of Directors appears set to appoint Stephenson its new interim CEO and president at its Tuesday meeting. The appointment is scheduled to be discussed in an executive session, with follow-up action taken in public.

The Connecticut Department of Social Services, of which Pheanious was once commissioner, has sent NEON two letters expressly forbidding the appointment of Stephenson and calling for a nationwide search.

A nationwide search would cost money that NEON doesn’t have, Pheanious said. There is also a deadline – her time at NEON ends Sept. 7, and someone has to run things.

“I think it’s an issue of timing,” she said. “There is no one on our board that I know of that does not agree to a nationwide search. The issue is one of timing. … I don’t think DSS can try to run NEON from Hartford. We have a difference of opinion about timing.”

The agency is not stable yet, she said, and is in the process of recovering from the problems that have earned it so much condemnation, facts that would likely preclude any quality candidates from outside coming to Norwalk on an interim basis.

“I am not sure who would come here, on what motive, with the situation the way it is now,” Pheanious said. “In a year we will be more stable, this should all be behind us.”

Stephenson could then apply for the job permanently, she said.

“If she’s the one the board puts in place, there’s no reason why she wouldn’t take on all comers,” she said. “Right now, while we’re trying to raise money. Why would you change things?”

Pheanious said Stephenson has earned her respect. While Pheanious, 63, goes home on weekends, Stephenson and other members of the staff continue working, she said.

“My respect for her has come because I have seen the energy she has put in to try to correct the things that were done by the previous administration,” she said.

Norwalk NAACP NEON mayoral forum 073113 083
NEON Chief Programming Officer Mary Mann helps begin last week’s mayoral forum.

She acknowledged that NEON has issues, including nepotism, but said Chief Programming Officer Mary Mann, the sister of former CEO and President Joe Mann, also works tirelessly.

They frequently works 14 hour days, she said.

Recently, Mayor Richard Moccia was invited to a board meeting, where Pheanious hoped to engage him in conversation. Moccia yelled at board members and left the executive session early.

About a year ago, Mann, Stephenson and Pheanious worked around the clock  putting together “the most detailed financial information ever given” she said, wearing the same clothes two days in a row. The idea was  to try to convince Moccia to fund NEON quarterly — the city could go over the figures every three months to see if the organization merited the money.

The mayor said no, Pheanious said.

“That’s what makes me think that was his intent in the first place, squeeze NEON to a slow death,” she said. ” …. I’ve gotten jaded. I’ve seen that song and dance, it wasn’t about transparency.

Pheanious said that she, Mann, and Stephenson are working hard to try to save South Norwalk’s anti-poverty agency, because if it fails, then what?

“You put your nose to the grind stone and continue to do what you know to be right and push, push, push,” she said.

If Stephenson and Mann get pushed out, they will just go somewhere else and be employed, she said.

“Who gets hurt? The powerless people in the community who need somebody to help them have a voice,” she said.

Offended by Peña’s latest move, she said she has learned something at NEON – instead of fighting back, pray for the person you are offended by.

But, she said, she couldn’t understand the councilman’s attitude toward the organization that nurtured him as a child, as he represents a community center that has never paid a dime to keep up the building it shares with NEON.

He is using his common council office inappropriately, she said, which she said offended her as a citizen and a taxpayer, even if she isn’t paying taxes in Norwalk.

“There are people out there that have motives and behaviors that I have difficulty understanding,” she said. “As a human services professional, I care about the people I serve. I recognize that I serve them as opposed to them serving me. I don’t get that kind of behavior.”


15 responses to “NEON CEO fires back at Peña, says Norwalk was her hardest job ever”

  1. Norwalk Lifer

    Character assasination of individuals does not move an organization forward. If there is still room for improvement at NEON, then that work should be approached objectively and without rancor, It does appear that a political platform is being formed from this unfortunate situation. What is Mr. Pena trying to do? divide a community? that is not the sign of a leader, that is the sign of a field lieutenant. Dividing and conquering is not was community services like this require. South Norwalk is a diverse and electic community. Not all are retirees, not all are low income, not all are minority, but for the most part, all do co-exist peacefully. What would someone try to divide a sub-set of this city in such a way? There are a few motivations, self interest, ambition, ignorance, or to be objective, the use of skill sets still in development mode. There is an internship to everything we do in life; from the passage to adulthood, marriage, employment, retirement, even death. There is an internship period, and this Mr. Pena, while well meaning possibly in his intentions, should quiet down a little and listen more to the people of this community. If the community members are not satisfied with the leadership of this important organization, they will let them know. I do not think that the characters of those who have remained at NEON require this kind of assasination. To question the educational credentials of an individual is the last refuge of a desperate attempt to derail an organization, so another can emerge.

    Instead of competing, Mr. Pena would show leadership by engaging. And insofar as the Mayor is concerned and his “yelling at the board”, well, the best feedback comes in the form of action, and if the mayor hears “yelling” come the impending election, let’s hope he’s listening.

    Norwalk Lifer

  2. RBurnett

    Right on the money Norwalk Lifer: NEON has had problems in the past; no doubt about it. However, the current staff and board are trying to move forward and to rebuild NEON into a viable organization that helps MANY people of all ages, from all walks of life, and from EVERY area in Norwalk.

    Why would Mr. Pena fight them and be an obstructionist? He is hurting so many people that he has sworn to serve. I think it might be time for him to step down if that is how he serves the pulic. One can only imagine what will happen if his Mayoral candidate somehow gets elected. Then we all better watch out.

  3. Norwalk Spectator

    [Ms.] “Pheanious, who was manager of Denver’s Department of Human Services from September 2008 to July 2011 and served as commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Social Services, said “everyone” in Norwalk seems to be walking around with an agenda. Politicians want NEON to fail, she said, in spite of the lack of resources for their constituents in South Norwalk.”

    That’s odd, Ms. Pheanious, that you would claim EVERYONE wants N.E.O.N. to fail, particularly in light of the fact that N.E.O.N. was given first time ever extension on the CDBG funding at the June meeting of the Planning Committee of the Common Council and the extension was approved for presentation to the full Council at the Committee’s July meeting. Then Common Council approved of that extension at their July meeting. While the full Common Council minutes aren’t posted yet, the very fact that the CDBG funding passed indicates that most of the Common Council was willing to support you.

    N.E.O.N. has problems, no one would deny that. And granted, there are people who have their own agendas in Norwalk. There isn’t a community of more than five people in the U.S. where someone does not have their own agenda.

    As for my two Council representatives, I happen to know for a fact they support N.E.O.N., simply because I asked them. I’m sorry you had such a rough time in Norwalk, but I think you did a major dis-service to many Norwalk residents who do want to help those who need assistance. But in light of your comments, I’ve begun to wonder if N.E.O.N. is the best way to provide those resources.

  4. @NorwalkLifer, “To question the educational credentials of an individual is the last refuge of a desperate attempt to derail an organization…” –
    WHAT!?!? This woman has misrepresented herself by outright lying to the public on her resume – she will lie about other things as well – she has no ethics. …
    Stephenson should NOT be given the reigns of NEON. In fact, the state should take over until ALL old regime soldiers are removed and new management in place. But ideally, shut the whole thing down and let people get off the duffs and actually work and pay for services like the rest of Norwalk.

    (Editor’s note: This comment has been edited to conform to our comment policy)

  5. piberman

    Why is our City’s elected leadership – Mayor Moccia and Common Council – apparently sitting on the side lines over NEON’s difficulties. Where is the new Bd. of Directors ? Is it because its an election year ? Or just indifference ? And where is the leadership of the community served by NEON ? NEON’s difficulties reflect poorly on our City’s leadership.

  6. ScopeonNorwalk

    I applaud Councilman Pena for standing up for what’s right. A good politician is one who will speak up for what’s right. A bad politician will keep his mouth shut even when they see something is wrong and we see that Norwalk has a lot of those…

    Let’s talk about the facts, at the last NEON Board Meeting I went to, they announced they were $300,000 in the hole. On top of that they have $800,000 to repay in funds that were misused. And the topping, they are totally disregarding a key funder’s request for a national search. Which means, less funding for NEON in the future.

    Who is the leader that is going to dig NEON out of this hole? Is it Mrs. Stephenson. No, because if she was a leader and cared about the community and money continuing to flow into NEON she would be calling for a National Search as well. She is totally disregarding the community for her own personal gain.

    First thing the Board of Neon and Mrs. Pheanious should be doing is looking at the role of COO and gauging Mrs. Stephenson’s performance in her current position against her responsibilities. Are NEON programs running well and within budget? Has she succeeded in that role of her current job? I think not, so what is the basis for a promotion to CEO?

    The South Norwalk Community will get served. Other organizations will spring up to get the government contract to provide the services NEON is currently providing. So if NEON wants to dig it’s own grave, in the end I say let them and South Norwalk should welcome new agencies to do the job correctly.

  7. The Deal

    The Mayor was yelling at people in the meeting and then left early?…..nothing new there.

  8. Joanne Romano

    I wish someone would come in and take over NEON that doesn’t have an agenda. But I would also like to point out that NEON does not exclusively cater to minorities! Someone needs to tell these people that NEON is there to help ALL residents in need no matter the color of their skin or their ethnicity. Please stop all this nonsense! I have been involved with Neon one way or another over the last 40 years! Yes , my daughter went to NEON pre-school for 3 years and yes I have had family members and friends that have fallen on hard times over the years that I have sent to NEON because it was always a caring nurturing organization and I was an executive board member and a regular board member. It is very sad to see all these headlines portraying Neon in such a negative manner. Folks, you’re there to help people not hinder progress and cause such disruptiveness and shut down services that a large portion of Norwalker’s need on a daily basis. Step up to the plate, put your politics aside and come to some decisions here folks. If you can’t figure it out amongst yourselves perhaps a mediator would be advisable, preferably from a successful organization such as Neon to show everyone how things should work! As far as The South Norwalk Community Center goes, the leaders there should be figuring out how to enhance the lives of the community and not so much about what Neon is/isn’t doing correctly! These entities should be working together for the benefit of their clients not playing a constant game of one upsmanship! What are you all trying to teach the younger generation? Obviously you haven’t figured out yet that you work for the community and as such you are beholden to them!

  9. LWitherspoon

    Follow the money folks. Warren Pena has stated in news articles that Common Council members such as himself should be paid. I have to wonder if Mr. Pena’s battle with NEON comes down to his interest in being paid more for his “service” to the community. Imagine what Mr. Pena could do for himself if he and SNCC gained control of some portion of the funds that currently go to NEON.

  10. LWitherspoon

    “I cannot be the only politician or community leader in this city voicing my opinion about who these people really are.”
    If Mr. Pena were on the receiving end of a comment such as this one, he would be the first to accuse the commenter of using bigoted language.

  11. Jlightfield

    NEON is precluded from engaging in any political activity because it is a 5013c. Hosting a political forum on premises, regardless of the nonpartisan nature is still something you can’t do. Looks like an IRS review is in order.

    1. Pat Pheanious said she considered the mayoral forum as “informational” as she also invited the mayor. Therefore not partisan politics, she said.
      The South Norwalk Community Center was recently used for a Democratic mayoral forum. On March 28 the SNCC was used for an informational forum regarding then-proposed immigration reform.

  12. Jlightfield

    @nancychapman the candidates have already indicated an uneven application of an open and non partisan invitation. The “informational forum” occurred prior to the deadline of a petition drive to collect signatures for office No one at NEON bothered (i’lll hazard a guess here) to read this:


  13. Norwalk lifer

    Dear Irish Girl:

    Your comments deserve response, my point is, using credentials as a sticking point for negative antics is indeed the last refuge of a desperate attempt to derail an organization like this. You counter point my comment and then wax poetically about duffs, and doles, fancied slights of entitlement.

    I would ask, if you knew what NEON has done for the community or that matter, even cared, you might be a little more moderate in your view point.

    I know NEON has helped children, seniors, and others who are less fortunate, I, for one, live by the rules, pay taxes, and basically has worked towards a creative and productive life; I begrudge no one who is less fortunate, fell on hard times, is struggling to build a life, an opportunity to suceed, such as NEON offers to their community.

    Would you entertain the possibility of an organization that helps seniors seek assistance in managing energy costs? so such costs do not cause them to make a hard choice between food, medicine and heat? I don’t. And it should be noted that any society that has ignored it’s very young and it’s very old has withered and disappeared, History certainly teaches us this. Getting off one’s duff and pulling one up by one’s own bootstraps requires boots in the first place; I’ll gladly donate for the leather. Perhaps others will donate the soles. This is a temporary appointment at NEON, that fact seems to escape the sensibilites of many here. What would you have NEON do? run headless until a permanent director is found? there is no organization I know of that would do this. The Character assasination of individuals is low rent, sub standard, and without any merit, except to leave a reader like me wondering about the gravitas of the individual making the charge.

    You do not chop down trees to make yourself appear taller, and that’s exactly what is happening right now, in this town, when it comes to NEON. It’s a wonderful subterfuge, isn’t it?

    Norwalk Lifer

  14. loveforthecity

    I attended the meet and greet at the South Norwalk Community Center and it is my understanding that all the candidates and the DTC paid for the use of the space like any other customer. Therefore, you cannot knock the Democratics or SNCC.

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