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.”
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.
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.”