NORWALK, Conn. – The new leaders of South Norwalk’s embattled anti-poverty agency met Wednesday night to organize, review its financial progress and get yelled at by the mayor.
The newly reformed Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) board of directors began its meeting with an executive session with Mayor Richard Moccia, the topic of which was grant funding, according to the agenda.
Board members declined to comment on the executive session, but part of it, at least, got hot. Moccia yelled at them for a minute or two behind closed doors, a sound that was clearly audible in the next room.
The conversation was “productive,” Interim CEO/President Pat Pheanious said.
The board then went on to set itself on course, as members laughed regularly as they elected new officers, even if one member expressed high anxiety about the existing by-laws.
“When I read this (by-laws), it took me to the twilight zone. I have never seen such extraordinary powers conferred on the chair. Never,” said Alan Rossi of Greenwich, who advocated for delaying the election of a chairman until the by-laws were rewritten.
Interim CEO/President Pat Pheanious agreed.
“In the last board it worked exactly as you wouldn’t want it to, which is why these documents desperately need changing,” she said.
Pheanious and Attorney Michael Widland reassured Rossi that the by-laws were being changed. Board members went home with the suggested new by-laws to review.
To be clear: all of the board members are new. As part of the effort to clear its name following a federal audit that showed more than $400,000 in federal grant money had been misspent, NEON has reformed its board. No one on the board was involved in the financial fiasco that led to the city of Norwalk cutting off funding for its Head Start program.
A few comments offered some insight into the closed session. Susan Weinberger started to talk about “revisiting the financials,” a reference to the executive session, before suddenly stopping when she realized a reporter was present.
“In terms of the financials, I want to revisit – and obviously the mayor went along with this – I want to revisit now in public session – never mind,” Weinberger said.
NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson went on to hand out a list detailing fundraising, including $63,500 in grants that were approved as of Jan. 1 and $1.8 million in grants pending decisions. Stephenson said half the grants were from new funders, and the list was hailed as good news.
“This whole thing to me is extremely encouraging because what it says is, I think, is that in spite of not having all the financials, having problematic governance issues, etc. etc., there is enough goodwill for NEON to be able to raise this support,” Rossi said. “I think this is really great.”
Weinberger said her comment had been heading in the direction of getting that information out to city officials.
Stephenson said there is more coming.
“You’re going to see a lot more of this,” she said. “We have a lot of corporate sponsors who are back on board. They want to help. They’re not in the caution mode, they’re in the ready to go, tell us what you need. We have this wonderful board in place and we are telling them what we need.”
Stephenson said she thought the mayor was surprised by the support coming to NEON from Stamford.
NEON merged recently with Stamford-based community action agency CTE Inc.
“Stamford is stepping up tremendously in such a way where they believe in what is happening,” she said. “They want to see the services get to the community and their question is how much more can we help. What do you need us to do?”
Pheanious gave the board an explanation of the facilities involved in child care: Of 14 classrooms at its Ben Franklin Center, 11 are active, and three are being prepared for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education; there are 19 classrooms at NEON’s Nathaniel Ely School facility.
NEON has 275 children in its Head Start program, 22 children in its Department of Social Services preschool and 56 children in its toddler program, she said.
Pheanious warned the board that there are “non-compliance” issues that might get NEON in trouble again.
“These are the types of things that will get us in trouble again if we don’t get them taken care of, and it’s about money,” she said.
She listed a Nathaniel Ely School fire panel that needs a motherboard and parking lot issues.
“Probably most importantly we need to paint our classrooms. Ben Franklin and Ely both have several classrooms that need to be repaired because of peeling paint. These are issues that will get us into trouble with Head Start.”
Weinberger suggested talking to the Norwalk Police Department about putting up cones to redirect traffic in the parking lot.
Board members suggested getting volunteers to paint the classroom. Rossi said the mayor had offered to maintain the facilities. Another member thought ATT might donate a motherboard.
Stephenson said corporate sponsors might step in to help.
“Our corporate sponsors stopped with us because of where we were,” she said. “We can go back now and ask to be included in their day of caring.”