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