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NEON taps the Rev. Tommie Jackson to lead agency

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The Rev. Tommie Jackson sits in on a Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) board meeting before named NEON’s new interim CEO.

(Updated 5 a.m. with complete rewrite; Clarifiation 10:49 a.m.: title is interim CEO)

STAMFORD, Conn. — The Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Board of Directors’ plan to name a new interim CEO Thursday night was nearly scuttled when board Chairman Michael Berkoff found out yet another board member had resigned, leaving the agency without a quorum to do business.

However, by 10:40 p.m, board member Elizabeth Dukes had rescinded her resignation and voted via email with the 15-member board to approve the Rev. Tommie Jackson to step in as interim CEO of the troubled anti-poverty agency.

The vote was 14-0, with one abstention. New NEON board member Michael Geake, who recently lost his bid for re-election to the Norwalk Common Council, seconded the motion to appoint and voted in favor of Jackson.

Berkhoff said Jackson had been picked “based on his background and recommendations that he has run and turned around programs such as NEON in the past.”

“We feel optimistic with Rev. Jackson,” he said. “We’re going to have an assessment of where we stand as an organization, both management structure, operational structure, and where we stand with the programs to see if there’s anything that would facilitate to pull some of them back.”

Jackson is replacing interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson, who was put on unpaid leave of absence after employee’s paychecks bounced Tuesday. Non-essential employees were furloughed Wednesday, leaving only three programs in operation. NEON’s child development program – a continuation of the federally suspended Head Start program – is closed, leaving hundreds of families without day care.

NEON Communications Director Scott Harris said 50 employees were furloughed, and 49 remain at work. He said the energy assistance program and the after-school childcare program for Stamford children were still running, but could not remember the third program. Those were the programs that have funding.

A Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) employee demands answers from NEON Board Chairman Mike Berkhoff Thursday in Stamford.
A Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) employee demands answers from NEON Board Chairman Mike Berkhoff Thursday in Stamford.

Thursday’s meeting began in a turbulent way when about half a dozen employees forced the board to hear their complaints, although public speaking was not on the agenda. Berkhoff was put on the defensive, forced to defend the board’s actions.

“I will not continue to work and not get a paycheck,” said one woman, demanding answers about the situation. “… We’ve had board members come on, board members leave, we are still in this problem.”

She said employees have been lied to for 18 months and needed an answer within 24 hours.

Berkhoff later said she was referring to 18 months of payroll problems. He told her he hoped to have answers for her by Monday or Tuesday. He said he had been working on fixing NEON’s problems for 10 to 15 hours a day.

She said he needed to give the employees answers because he had put their supervisors on furlough.

“For you to come and say I’m working on it, with all due respect that’s not good enough,” she said. “You should have stepped in with a plan of action. You have people here who are diligently working to keep this agency door open because we believe in the mission statement. Way before you came here we believed in the mission statement. … You don’t have an answer for the safety of this building. You don’t have an answer for the compliance with the contracts. At least give us some answers now.”

Berkhoff said the board is working with the governor’s office and with the cities of Stamford and Norwalk.

Jackson is the pastor of Stamford’s Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church. He was was hired to lead Stamford’s Urban Redevelopment Commission, the Stamford Advocate reports. He has served as on the boards of various city and area organizations, including St. Luke’s Life Works, the Stamford YMCA, and the Southern Connecticut Urban League, the Advocate reports.

He said his first priority would be to get some much-needed cash to NEON.

“The first thing is to go back to the funders who have outstanding contracts with NEON at this time as well as those who owe NEON money for services provided and secure that funding for NEON as quickly as possible so that that money can be used to pay the staff and to continue existing services.” he said.

He hopes to get the employees their paychecks within a few days, he said. He would not comment on the possibility of more furloughs.

He said he was not ready to discuss the transfer of NEON’s Head Start program to Community Development Institute (CDI).

The hotline set up by CDI for Head Start parents had a new message Thursday night. CDI has obtained the licenses needed to share the two buildings in which NEON runs Head Start, it said. The licenses to share the Nathaniel Ely School and the Ben Franklin Center are effective Friday, but CDI had not gotten permission from NEON, the message said.

There has been a rumor circulating that Jackson has a son that works for NEON, that he is a spiritual adviser to Stephenson, that board members go to his church. The thrust of this rumor is that it’s the “same-old, same-old” at NEON, with nepotism and inside connections running rampant.

Jackson denied most of that. He does not have a son, he has two daughters and neither work at NEON or CTE, he said. Stephenson does not go to his church. Some board members do, he said.

“There are members of the board who attend the church but they had no idea tonight that this would happen,” he said.

Berkhoff defended Stephenson.

“Chiquita did a very good job, she is very capable person,” he said. “Currently, where we are with the finances of NEON, we need to have somebody with the ability to pull some additional government funds into the organization. After discussion, we felt that the Rev. Tommie Jackson could possibly accomplish that.”

Comments

17 responses to “NEON taps the Rev. Tommie Jackson to lead agency”

  1. WHAT?

    Berkhoff is unprepared to do anything. He only came onto the board to help back his buddy Jack O’Dea. O’Dea spent all his time being a goon to anyone who suggested that Chiquita and her High School diploma might be less than a good fit for running an 18m organization. There’s not really much left to do for the Chiquita-or-bust crew. Stay in Stamford where you belong.

  2. Just sayin

    And Joe Mann rides off into the sunset; laughing all the way to the bank

  3. malcolm

    Is NEON a legal entity now that the board has fallen below the required 15? I think not…..

  4. Casey Smith

    Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of
    “As the Stomach Churns”

  5. Steve Serasis

    I told ALL the elected Officials, Chief of Police, and then the select compassionate Board members something had to be done way before I resigned as the Youth Services Director at NEON, that something had to be done immediately to help salvage the organization. Now the people it served, or I should say needed to be served have been dealt a severe blow. How sad. If only they had all listened to me 5+ years ago, instead of chickening out, this wouldn’t have come to this…

  6. Dawn

    It interesting to see when the chips are down, everyone jumps on the bandwagon.
    NEON NEEDS HELP. They need experts in many different fields to come to the table and assist. Rev. Tommie Jackson what is his experience? Has he managed a conglomerate such as Neon? Why not put an advisory in place and work towards six months processes at a time, selecting a board member who has the time to hit the ground running working through the day issues, meeting with staff individually-not via letter or police, but put forth a good faith effort to fix things.
    Staff members are angry and upset, which they have every right to be. Long time ago I was taught that you don’t mess with people-their kids and their money. Staff members deserve the right to be spoken to indivually and maybe collectively when it comes to their lively hood.
    The Board is asking staff members to sign confidentiality statement- For what? When people are concerned, hurt or marred by a situation NOT handled professionally-its how the situation is handled that may provide all parities with a suitable outcome.

    Maybe the agency looses some of its programs and staff,-which is factual and imminent but through a committed effort start re banding, refocusing and remaining everyone, that Rome was not built in a day and that with every challenge and struggle, “one” does become stronger.

  7. WOW!

    Wow! Chiquita steps down (or not!) and is replaced by the Pastor of her church? Really, who are they kidding? This Stamford mob should be run out of Norwalk. Enough is enough! First, a Ponzi scheme, now musical chairs!

  8. Paula

    The previous CEO, Mr. Mann, was also forced out but due to contractual obligations continued to be paid for sometime, NEON paid for two CEO’s last year. Is this going to be a repeat? Will NEON now have to compensate Ms. Stephenson as well as Mr. Jackson?

  9. The Norwalker

    A lot of honest and hardworking staff members, some who did not even make a quarter of Stephenson’s $135k salary have been laid off and who know what problems the disruption of Headstart Services caused client families.

    Someone needs to be made to pay for this.

  10. Norwalk Lifer

    NEON merged with Stamford’s CTE in the spring:

    https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2013/03/neons-new-board-members-begin-work/

    This is when the new board members were voted in, including the one that just tried to resign, Bishop Elizabeth Dukes.

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

  11. EveT

    Rev. Jackson’s “first priority would be to get some much-needed cash to NEON”? How about finding out where the money went? No funding agency should give NEON a dime until the mismanagement of prior funds is untangled and stopped.
    NEON Communications Director Scott Harris “could not remember the third program”? Some communications director.

  12. amazed

    How can anyone possibly state Chiquita did a good job when employees PAY CHECKS BOUNCED. Is she going to provide Thanksgiving dinner for the employees and their families.

  13. T.Smith

    Berkhoff if you want to be taken seriously in this town terminate Chiquita. She wasn’t capable of doing the job in the first place. Then she took it to a whole new level when she broke the law. Its pretty simple for most, you go to work you commit a felony you get fired and prosecuted. It was not a sane choice to print hundreds of fraudulent checks. Get rid of her and whoever else helped her with her crime. Keeping her in the background and bringing her back when the dust settles is not acceptable.

  14. WOW!

    WOW! Chiquita was caregiver to her now-deceased grandmother, Rosetta MORRIS, whose funeral was held at FAITH TABERNACLE BAPTIST CHURCH last year. I’m not surprised Chiquita isn’t a member of that church, as of today. After all, how would that look? Her grandmother did, however, work with Chiquita at Malta House and at Chiquita’s other non-profit, Victoria Gardens. Since they were so close, working together and Chiquita being her grandmother’s caregiver, are we to believe her 100-plus year old grandmother went to church on her own?
    Also notice her grandmother’s last name… MORRIS. Is that why CT Rep Bruce MORRIS is always around Chiquita? No, they couldn’t be related, could they?
    Here’s the link:
    http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/stamfordadvocate/obituary.aspx?n=rosetta-morris&pid=156741000

    1. Bruce Morris told me tonight that he is not related to Chiquita Stephenson. He said his family came here from New Haven, and are originally from Cape Verde. Morris said his family name is an Americanization of a Cape Verdean name (which sounded like Mauray). It is not the same Morris that belonged to Ms. Stephenson’s grandmother.

  15. M Allen

    If there is any personal connection between Rev. Jackson and any member of management or the Board at NEON, then this is already off to a quesitonable start. This needs fresh eyes, unaffiliated with the “people problem.” Connections will simply allow the lingering doubts to keep creaping back in. When Mr. Berkoff used the term “turnaround specialist” two days ago, I was under the impression someone with a bit more managerial and financial experience was coming in. Rev. Jackson may be a good man and have some experience in troubled non-profits. And perhaps his resume is more robust than what has been described here. But given the situation at NEON and the need to not only change NEON, but also change the perception outside those walls, I hope Berkhoff and the other Board members know exactly what failure this time around will mean. I hope they asked themselves: Knowing that if we get this wrong it will be the end of NEON, is Rev. Jackson the absolute right person for the task? I hope he is.

  16. EastNorwalkChick

    A good CPA and Bookkeeper with Non-Profit accounting experience need to step in and straighten this accounting mess out first and for most. I highly doubt that the good Rev. Jackson will be able to find out who owes NEON money without them, since their accounting/financial systems seems to be non-existent at the moment.
    .
    The statement of the Communications Director sums up the executive staff there at NEON…”I don’t know…”

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