NORWALK, Conn. – A controversial recommendation for a new interim leader for South Norwalk’s embattled anti-poverty agency was tabled Wednesday night without any public discussion after charges were made about the leader’s tactics and worthiness.
Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now’s new board members – some of whom were in their third meeting, and one who was just sworn in – listened to South Norwalk Community Center (SNCC) Board of Directors Chairman Warren Peña urge them to remove Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson, without mentioning her by name. The board then went into an executive session to discuss “executive transition.” After about two hours, board members reconvened and tabled the item without any comment.
The latest controversy stems from the expected Aug. 31 departure of Interim Director Pat Wilson Pheanious, who was appointed by the Connecticut Department of Social Services last year after President and CEO Joseph Mann was forced to resign in the wake of a scandalous federal audit of the agency. Pheanious, whose term is expiring, has recommended that the board appoint Stephenson to replace her for 18 months.
That recommendation drew a stern rebuke from DSS Commissioner Roderick Brembley, The Hour reported Wednesday.
In a July 3 letter to board members, printed by the Hour, Brembley said, “If you have begun discussions and plan potential steps to appoint an interim director without conducting a nationwide search I must insist you cease such activities.” Brembley also mentioned a meeting with Board Chairman William Westcott planned for Wednesday afternoon and said he wanted to arrange a meeting with the full board to discuss the search for a new director, outstanding invoices, board member training and hiring practices.
Westcott said Wednesday night that he and nine other board members traveled to Hartford to meet with Brembley that afternoon.
“We had a meeting that went very, very well,” Westcott said, adding that the “show of support” was well received.
NEON’s conflicts with the South Norwalk Community Center, which by deed is entitled to the first floor of the 98 South Main St. building it shares with NEON, bubbled over in Peña’s comments.
Peña mentioned “some really unfortunate situations” and suggested that the staff were “perhaps manipulated, brainwashed” by tactics of the current NEON leadership.
“Change the leadership of your staff,” he said. “You cannot move forward in a positive direction without changing that leadership. … It’s bad news for NEON. You will never be able to move on in the public’s eyes.”
Peña referred to his term as a Democratic at-large common councilman. “I’ll tell you, all the elected officials here locally will have absolutely nothing to do with NEON until the leadership of this staff is gone.”
Stephenson is not qualified to lead NEON, he said, and does not have the proper credentials.
At the June 12 board meeting, members voted to change the job description of the director to say that appropriate experience could be used in lieu of educational credentials. The Hour’s story called Stephenson’s qualifications into question.
Westcott made reference to the situation before suggesting the executive session.
“There are several intertwined issues with this; some of them pertain to some very sensitive issues that were discussed at the meeting earlier today,” he said. “There are some sensitive issues beyond that. It involves personnel.”
The Hour printed Stephenson’s resume, which states that she earned an associates degree in political science and a paralegal certification from Norwalk Community College. The article said that, at that time, NCC did not offer a degree in political science.
The meeting ended with Stephenson saying that she had indeed graduated from NCC. She promised to sue anyone found responsible for obtaining her educational records from Norwalk Community College, and perhaps the college itself.
“On June 19 someone accessed my transcripts,” she said. “They received an unofficial copy, representing that they were, in fact, me. At this point in time we’re going to be calling for the United States Department of Education to do a full investigation. That full investigation is going to be targeted to the college and it is also going to be targeted to any person within the community that illegally accessed my records.”
Federal law protects the educational records of students from schools that receive funding from applicable USDOE programs.
Stephenson did not mention the allegation that her claim of an associates degree in political science was false, but said there were “small discrepancies to fix” on her transcript.
“It’s troubling not just for myself but for my co-workers, who have diligently worked on behalf of NEON,” she said. “I will pursue every opportunity that I have to legally sue every person involved with this action.”