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NEON holds 10-minute meeting, adjourns citing FOI violation

Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Board member Cynthia Bowser scowls during a very brief board of directors meeting Wednesday.

NORWALK, Conn. – A plan to vote on a new interim director for South Norwalk’s embattled anti-poverty agency was put on hold Wednesday night by agency officials who cited a legal technicality, but one angry official implied a conspiracy theory was at work.

The special meeting of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) lasted 10 minutes. Board Chairman William Westcott walked into the packed conference room 20 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin and announced that NEON’s lawyers had advised that any action taken would be illegal due to insufficient advance information provided to the public. He therefore recommended that the meeting be adjourned and rescheduled.

Board member Jack O’Dea immediately called for the dismissal of interim NEON President and CEO Pat Wilson Pheanious, who said she had prepared the insufficient agenda in question. Nothing came of that but a little laughter.

Pheanious is already on her way out the door – her term expires Aug. 31. She has recommended that Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson become interim director for 18 months, a proposal board members had expected to discuss and vote on.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Brembly  sent NEON a letter dated July 3 asking the board to conduct a nationwide search for a director.

The agenda prepared by Pheanious listed an executive session with two items, Personnel (Executive Director) and Potential Litigation (DSS/OIG). Attorney Don Houston said there was no indication to the public in the “fatally flawed” agenda that there would be a vote on the executive director position. Any action taken could therefore be challenged and subject to being overturned by the Freedom of Information Commission.

O’Dea, on his way out the door, cast doubt on that explanation.

“They don’t have the votes,” he said. “You’ve got something to vote on, you don’t have the votes, you can’t win the vote so you cancel the meeting, because somebody screws around with the notification of the meeting.”

Westcott said he had been in a meeting with Pheanious, Houston and Attorney Michael Widland before the board meeting was to begin.

O’Dea said they had been behind closed doors for an hour. He expressed skepticism that the problem with the agenda had been discovered that afternoon.

“Why did people sit in the room with the door closed for an hour to decide this?” he asked. “They’re in deep (excrement), that’s why.”

O’Dea said a Norwalk Police officer had been present briefly before the meeting began.

“Somebody called and said there should be a police person at this meeting,” he said.

About 20 members of the public attended the meeting. About 16 of NEON’s 20 board members were present.

The agenda handed out at the meeting was substantially different from the agenda emailed July 17. The original agenda did not include public comment and had “contract review” listed as an agenda item, with “AIC resolution” as a sub head. The agenda handed out said “AY 13/14 against which initial payments can be processed (includes COLA).”

Also on the agenda was “Letter from DSS regarding OIG,” a reference to a demand from the Connecticut Department of Social Services that NEON repay $314,065 in money misspent before former CEO and President Joe Mann resigned.

O’Dea said three DSS auditors had spent the day at NEON.

“They had a lot of questions, we had a lot of answers,” he said. “They left here with a whole different attitude than when they came here.”

Board member Michael Berkoff said that attitude was “very positive.”

During the aborted board meeting, O’Dea said he wanted it on the record that he was opposed to the “strong-arm activity,” a reference to the recommendation to adjourn based on FOI laws.

Westcott responded that the board had requested the presence of the lawyers, who had then recommended ending the meeting without any action.

O’Dea asked why the lawyers hadn’t been at the previous board meeting. “You asked them not to come,” he said.

Westcott responded with sarcasm.

“Yes, Mr. O’Dea,” he said. “This is my master plan. You have discovered me.”

Former board member John Mosby, a frequent critic of NEON, protested the agenda’s plan to have public comment at the end of the meeting. Westcott said Mosby was correct and promised that wouldn’t happen again.

Mosby said the public should have a copy of the minutes from the previous meeting in advance.

“There’s too much games being played,” he said. “We’re talking about millions of dollars. You’re giving us a bad name.”

At that point, board member Cynthia Bowser shot back.

“You’re giving us a bad name,” she said, to Mosby. Then, to another board member, she said, “I can’t take anymore.”

After the meeting, Mosby said he had filed complaints against NEON with the FOI commission.

“I think they changed (the meeting) because I’ve got a charge against them,” he said. “The Freedom of Information said ‘you are absolutely right’ … that’s why they done it.”

NancyOnNorwalk has also filed a complaint with the FOI commission against NEON, alleging improper use of executive session.

The board voted to reschedule the meeting to Aug. 6, and make the agenda plain that they planned to appoint an acting CEO. O’Dea was the only member to vote against that.

Correction, July 27: number of board members

NEON 072413 015
Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Board Chairman William Westcott relays the recommendation to prematurely end the board meeting Wednesday evening.

Comments

11 responses to “NEON holds 10-minute meeting, adjourns citing FOI violation”

  1. I asked Chief Thomas Kulhawik about the assertion that police had been there.
    He said, “I did have a supervisor stop by there to evaluate whether they expected a large crowd, etc and to assist if needed, otherwise I am not aware of any calls or issues there.”

  2. loveforthecity

    This place is a joke, when are they going to wake up and figure out that they have to rid themselves of the garbage to move on.

  3. SB

    Nancy,
    Does FOI apply to NEON? Not certain that they could be defined as a “public agency.”

  4. FLEECE-ON

    They are most definitely subject to FOIA as a federal and state sub-awarded grant recipient. This is Federal law.

  5. Joanne Romano

    Having served on this board for many years, I find it disheartening and a slap in the face to Norwalk citizens who are in need of the services this organization offers. I have never seen such disarray in my life. Here is the rendition of the FOIA requirements for a non profit i.e. 501c3
    *
    *
    Open Meetings Laws in Different States and usually called
    “Sunshine Laws”. Generally 501(c)(3) organizations are exemptfrom the State Sunshine Law unless they are receiving governmental funding or other benefits from the government. However, other state laws may apply. Therefore, NEON is answerable to FOIA because it does get its funding from Grants/governmental funding.
    *
    *
    The 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act amendments[edit]

    In 1976, as part of the Government in the Sunshine Act, Exemption 3 of the FOIA was amended so that several exemptions were specified:
    1.Information relating to national defense,
    2.Related solely to internal personnel rules and practices,
    3.Related to accusing a person of a crime,
    4.Related to information where disclosure would constitute a breach of privacy,
    5.Related to investigatory records where the information would harm the proceedings,
    6.Related to information which would lead to financial speculation or endanger the stability of any financial institution, and
    7.Related to the agency’s participation in legal proceedings.

  6. SB

    I don’t know-never seen an FOI complaint regarding a “Community Action” agency and they’ve been in trouble many times over they years for financial irregularities.

  7. FLEECE-ON

    FOIA is only as good as your worst paper shredder or disk erasing magnet.

  8. FLEECE-ON

    Why would anyone expect solid leadership here, when this is clearly a position that will pay you handsomely and with zero accountability. There are more poor kids sitting in jail in Bridgeport right now for crimes less heinous that what the past executive director was allowed to walk away from. The way this system of state grants is designed, they are guaranteed to end up with another con man or woman running the joint. And before you say I’m making this up, didn’t they just almost hire a woman who lied about her education? I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she also has a charge card to whoop it up on, while she continues to work there. This is a land grab, children be damned.

  9. SB

    There are a few good people working at NEON, but overall the agency has had a history of incompetence and corruption. And now they want to merge with the Stamford agency, when they can’t even manage Norwalk programs effectively? It would be better for the Board and the State to give NEON programs to other agencies with successful management demonstrated. Time to end the patronage parade for unqualified locals.

  10. Norwalk Lifer

    From what I am reading here, the only difference between NEON and city agencies is NEON has to hold a public forum and publish their meeting minutes, P&Z apparently does not. NEON has shown a budget issue of 314K well published in the various news journals in Norwalk, The city clerks office has an issue also, but the alleged perpetrator of this, is not under arrest and has appealed thru grievance process her dismissal.

    What can one conclude from this? NEON does not have the political moat that some city agencies have; where they are commanded to be public about their inner workings, and rightfully so, any call for improvement of communications, in city agencies such as P&Z, i.e., published meetings, is met with criticisms of “soft skills” and cattle calls for “resignation”.

    FIE, Norwalk, you do not apply the same set of standards to all your citizens and city officials, but you are quick to criticize those who may not have the political infrastructure to defend themselves.

    A Ridiculous state of affairs, NEON has supported and helped many people throughout the years, this constant “Scarlett Letter” badgering should be deplored, it is as antiquated as those silly hats the Puritan town fathers wore.

    An neighbor of mine who was from Australia once said “You got the Puritans, we got the Convicts”, I daresay that the Aussies got the better part of the deal!

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

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