NORWALK, Conn. – Alleged nepotism at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now is embarrassing, according to one South Norwalk community leader, who said he’d like to know why the people who were close to former NEON CEO Joe Mann are still with the anti-poverty agency.
The nepotism charges brought forward by Ernie Dumas of A Better South Norwalk have not been answered by NEON leadership, who ignored a Freedom of Information Act request. Even board member Susan Weinberger, Ph. D., could not get the information, though she said she wants to know, too.
Dumas said he had heard that four members of Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson’s family work for the agency. He was given names, including that Shondelle Thomas, Stephenson’s sister, who works as a teacher at Ben Franklin and was promoted to educational manager after about a year. He was also told that other relatives work in NEON’s maintenance department, the boutique and as a secretary.
Board member Jack O’Dea was offended at the questions about Stephenson’s family, but confirmed that Stephenson’s sister works for the agency.
“That stuff is crazy,” he said in a combative phone call. “… I don’t think frankly that someone should get a job because they have a relative, I don’t think someone shouldn’t get a job because they have been a relative. The real question is are they doing a good job.”
He did not return a follow-up email asking about Dumas’ other information and for details about what Thomas is doing for NEON.
The phone call came after a July 14 email to Stephenson, interim NEON CEO Pat Pheanious and NEON Director of Communications Scott Harris, which cited FOI and requested a list of all of the public agencies employees, their salaries and their city of residence. Stephenson replied the next day and said the request had been given to NEON’s attorneys.
That evening, after a Planning Committee meeting, Stephenson refused to provide contact information for those lawyers.
No answer ever came, despite a July 19 email notifying NEON that a complaint would be filed.
Weinberger said Sunday that board members would also like that information and have been trying to get it.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” she said.
She said Board Chairman William Westcott is responsive and forwarded the request to him. No answer came.
Dumas said NEON has violated the community’s trust.
“It’s happening in my community, it’s an embarrassment,” he said. “… It’s going on too long.”
He said he is upset that members of the management who were there when Mann was forced out are still there. That includes Mann’s sister, Mary Mann, who still works for NEON as workforce development director.
“How come, as close as they are with Joe, how come they didn’t go out?” he asked. “(They were) all working hand in hand, knowing what’s going on. Even with Joe’s sister. Somebody’s not doing their homework.”
O’Dea defended Mary Mann.
“Am I going to knock Mary Mann because she has a brother named Joe Mann?” he asked. “She is a class act lady, very capable, she does a good job. … They want to crucify his sister because she happens to be related to Joe Mann.”
Dumas said it’s “a bunch of lies” among the NEON staff.
“I think they’re hiding a bunch of stuff,” he said. “It’s nepotism written all everything.”
Pheanious, whose term ends Aug. 1, answered some of the nepotism charges after the July 11 board meeting, where Dumas was one of the members of the public to address the board.
“Yeah, there are people who are related to each other in this agency but there is nobody in this agency that has direct supervisory authority over anyone else,” she said.
The board had just passed a code of ethics that made that clear, she said.
At one point, she was “a little disturbed” to see relatives on the staff.
“It turned out that I couldn’t move them,” she said. “Yeah, there are a lot of people who are related but people were not picked for that reason. People are not supervising their relatives. I am not going to say to somebody that comes to this agency who is qualified that I’m not going to hire them because they have a relative who works here. What I am going to say is that you will not be supervised by that relative and you have to meet the qualifications that I am looking for.”
She struck a similar note to O’Dea when talking about the people complaining about NEON.
“I think that maybe the way things used to be worked for some people for one reason or another and now some things aren’t working like they used to for them,” she said. “I don’t know what other reason there would be for the level of discontent that some people have but it’s not because of a lack of transparency, it is not because of a lack of attention on our part. I’m very proud of this agency and the work that has happened over the last 18 months and what is going to happen in the future. We haven’t missed a beat in service through all the turmoil.”
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