NEON, SoNoCC leaders defend their positions in ongoing dispute

Michael Roman takes the doorknob off a common area at the home of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now and the South Norwalk Community Center as requested by SoNoCC Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino.

NORWALK, Conn. – Sparks flew almost instantly between the latest leader of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) and the latest leaders of the South Norwalk Community Center, resulting in a power outage on just about the one year anniversary of a previous utility-based confrontation between the two agencies.

NEON transitional CEO and President the Rev. Tommie Jackson said the nasty conversations began in December with an ill-fated meeting in Mayor Harry Rilling’s office, in which he felt sandbagged. In seeking to explain their side of the story, of which the latest chapter includes breaking and entering, SoNoCC leaders also are going over the history between the two agencies.

Last Thursday, Jackson had NEON employees turn off the circuit breakers in the building shared by the two entities, at 98 South Main St. SoNoCC Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino had a friend break into the locked mechanical room and turn the breakers back on. Jackson called police.

On Friday morning, Ferrandino called police because the power was again off, he said. Jackson order the power restored after a conversation with Rilling, Ferrandino said.

This stems from an ongoing dispute about the electric bill for the building. Jackson said he wants SoNoCC to pay its fair share. Ferrandino and SoNoCC board Chairman Warren Peña say they’d like to see a bill.

“We did not receive a bill from an electric company or any utility company,” Peña said. “What they did was they sent us a letter and then the second page to it was essentially three line items, on their letter head, a made-up bill essentially that they made with absolutely no supporting documents. So how am I supposed to take that? I would never cut them a check without seeing a billing statement from SNEW or a water company or something like that. That just goes to show you the professionalism that they have.”

The letter asked for between $11,000 and $12,000, he said.

In seeking to tell his side of the dispute, Jackson said Thursday that he at first tried to give Ferrandino what he wanted and began vacating space on the first floor so that SoNoCC would be able to begin renovations when it got the $100,000 in Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) funding it had been awarded.

These boxes in a common area of the first floor of 98 South Main St. contain telephones ordered by NEON and not returned, SoNoCC Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino said. He locked the door before leaving.

“Mr. Ferrandino appeared to be happy with the steps we were taking to try and accommodate them,” Jackson said. “I said to Mr. Ferrandino, ‘If you are in this building you should continue to pay the utility costs. And the insurance.’ Mr. Ferrandino’s response to me, and I quote, was ‘Where is the quid pro quo?’ That’s what he said to me.”

Jackson thought he was meeting Peña in Rilling’s office in December to talk about a soccer program, but Ferrandino and his wife were there. The soccer program was never discussed, he said.

“I said to Mr. Ferrandino, Mr. Ferrandino’s wife, Mr. Peña and the mayor, in no uncertain terms, that NEON was not going anywhere, that NEON was the CAP (Community Action Program) for community and, as far as I was concerned, that we were going to do everything we could to give it new life and have it continue to operate and exist,” Jackson said. “The meeting at the end turned kind of sour, it didn’t go as anybody expected, and that is what has happened.”

The Sunday of “Martin Luther King weekend” featured an “ugly phone call” between Ferrandino, Jackson and Berkoff, Jackson said.

“Mr. Ferrandino went off on me, calling me a liar, that I wasn’t a man of God, daddadaddadadda,” Jackson said. “I said to Mr. Ferrandino, there are two areas that I will not let people talk about me. One is with areas with my family, the other area is my faith. Those are just no-nos. You can say whatever you want about me. I said to Mr. Ferrandino, I read the comments on NancyOnNorwalk and many of those comments are attributed to you. NancyOnNorwalk, in its discretion and professionalism, has redacted stuff you have written and said ‘there are some things we won’t write, we won’t post on our blog.’ I know those statements came from him. … The conversation got really, really nasty, got really ugly. And Mr. Berkoff said, ‘Here’s what we’ll do. Let’s end the conversation because I don’t want to be part of name calling. I don’t want to be part of screaming. ‘”

Again, in February, there was a conversation, this time with “name dropping,” Jackson said.

“Mr. Ferrandino said he had been in contact with the state and his brother, the former (education) commissioner, he had all these contacts in Hartford. These people were going to work with him and they were assuring him that the South Norwalk Community Center would become a CAP. I said, ‘Mr. Ferrandino, where is the money? Where is the money for the utilities and the other costs associated with maintaining this building?’ He went off on me again, saying we had not vacated the area and the only area we were using on the first floor was the receptionist area, which is a common area.”

Ferrandino threatened to break into the reception area, Jackson said.

Thursday’s break-in included a trip into a set of rooms that includes the receptionist’s desk. Ferrandino locked the door to that before leaving. But he also attempted to make sure he could get into the rooms around that walled-in desk by having a doorknob removed so that it could not be locked again.

Ferrandino’s contention is that NEON has been using space on the first floor, space that belongs to the center, and not paying rent for it.

Peña said he was informed by NEON founder Bobby Burgess that NEON was designed to be a fiduciary pass-through for the center.

“He said the way operation is supposed to function is that NEON was to take the lead on writing the grants, administering everything, having one central line of communication and they would take the lead,” Peña said.

That was ratified by boards over the years, he said. There is no agreement for the center to pay utility bills.

“I have been wanting to sit down with the previous leadership and this current leadership and they have refused to discuss a building operating agreement that would formalize our relationship in terms of the building maintenance and bring those documents to both our boards for approval,” Peña said.

NEON, under former NEON interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious, drafted a Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations, Peña said.

“We tweaked it and sent it back, but we never heard anything back,” he said. “It became something that was, I think, just tabled and they would not address because of all the audits and everything.”

He has asked to review documents, he said. That hasn’t happened.

“Therefore we are continuing under the old agreement, which is that NEON is to pay and sustain the building operating expenses,” he said. “Until we sit down like professional business folks and adults to have a candid conversation about the maintenance of the building and how we can co-exist peacefully, I feel like we are in up in flux. Now we hear rumors they are going bankrupt within 10 days, whatever, and they have refused to get us to the table to at least be in the know, or chat or understand what is going to happened so that we can be prepared.”

“Hearsay” is that NEON is going out of business April 30, Peña said.

Rilling said he would arrange a meeting between the two entities this week.

“I hope that the meeting consists of the true stakeholders that need to be at the meeting vs. others who will create and cause more rhetoric to this situation,” Peña said. “That’s what I have been asking for from the very first day. I still can’t get it a year and a half later.”

Those “true stakeholders” would be Jackson, Berkoff and attorneys, he said.

Last year, in the week before Easter, Pheanious had the telephones, telephone wiring and Internet service taken out of the center.

“It’s like deja vu all over again,” Peña said. “It’s just very immature, irrational, unprofessional.”

This vacant room is on the first floor of 98 South Main St. Pat Ferrandino said he had been requesting access; on Thursday he had a friend break in and remove the door knob so he couldn’t be locked out again.


12 responses to “NEON, SoNoCC leaders defend their positions in ongoing dispute”

  1. Yankee Clipper

    I sure hope Rilling can get these two parties to the table and tell them to grow up. Both of these organizations have a job to do and this nitpick fighting is ridiculous. Grow up!

  2. Casey Smith

    Oh, no, here we go again! Next Wednesday can not come fast enough.

  3. Simmie

    What a disgrace! I’m ashamed of these unprofessional, immature people!
    Mayor Rilling, please step up and demand these men get their testosterone levels in order immediately!!
    Their pride and egos are destroying these agencies, their collective reputations, and most importantly, the most vulnerable residents of Norwalk (that they ‘claim’ to serve.
    If they refuse to grow up, and start acting as such, then do what is best for the people of Norwalk, and replace each and everyone of them… NOW!!!

  4. LWitherspoon

    Community leaders should be setting an example for how to work well with others, something neither NEON nor SoNoCC appear to doing. If Norwalk has a new CAP agency perhaps we would be best served if none of the current leaders of the aforementioned organizations were involved.

  5. EveT

    None of these people are demonstrating the kind of responsibility, maturity, and good judgment that we ought to see in leaders of community programs. From all the info that has been made public, it looks like NEON needs to be investigated for misuse of funds, while SoNoCC may be in the clear in that respect. Still, both sides have way too much baggage. If there’s going to be a CAP agency in Norwalk, and we surely do need one, it’s time to get entirely new leadership.

  6. LWitherspoon

    I should add that SoNoCC is not doing Mayor Rilling any favors by stating that they broke in to NEON’s utility room with Mayor Rilling’s blessing:
    “After calling Mayor Harry Rilling and explaining the situation, Ferrandino led a break-in to two mechanical areas to restore power, citing the expensive medications in the refrigerator at AmeriCares and Rilling’s sanctioning of the tactic.”
    Source: NoN (https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/04/sonocc-neon-should-be-evicted/)
    Maybe speaking to the Mayor first was a good idea, but how did it help to announce it in the media? Now the Mayor and former Police Chief is on record as having sanctioned a break-in!

  7. Oldtimer

    Break-in ? The utility room is on the first floor, in space leased to Sonocc and somebody from NEON trespassed to get to that room, turn off the power and then lock the door. If I came to your house and did the same thing, would you believe you were breaking in if you had to force a locked door to get to the breaker panel in your house ?

  8. Norewalk Lifer

    This nonsense is just going to serve to tear a community apart, we admonish our children not to fight and bicker in this manner, why are these people, both sides, acting this way?

    They are losing sight of the amazing work that can be done by these agencies, and it’s a shame; kids are watching this little comedy and the lesson from this is simple; don’t act like a so called adult.

    Norewalk Lifer

  9. LWitherspoon

    I merely used the same term as NoN. If you want to, you can continue parse the terms of an old verbal agreement. However the fact remains that SoNoCC is not doing your friend Mayor Rilling any favors by declaring in the media that the Mayor sanctioned the break-in, or whatever you want to call it.
    I was disappointed to read Warren Pena’s comment that SoNoCC will not be paying the utility bill because he has heard that NEON might go bankrupt. If in fact SoNoCC owes money to NEON and NEON goes bankrupt, that debt doesn’t simply disappear. NEON’s creditors will want it paid.
    @Norwalk Lifer
    I agree. The last thing that underserved communities need is non-profit agencies bickering between themselves rather than serving the community.
    I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about the Carver Center and their director is very impressive. Perhaps the Carver Center could serve as Norwalk’s new CAP if NEON does indeed fold.

  10. Oldtimer

    I agree that publicly announcing that Mayor Rilling had been consulted first and approved breaking into the utility room to turn the power on was not a politic thing to do because some people will interpret that as the Mayor approving a crime, which is not what happened.
    Ferrandino should have asked a lawyer for legal advice and not the mayor.

  11. Norwalk

    This comment was disallowed because it was potentially libelous, about a non-public figure and based on a 2-year-old news story in another publication about an alleged violation with no indication of a resolution.

  12. LWitherspoon

    I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that there was no crime. If memory serves, SoNoCC seems to be basing its claim on an old verbal agreement. Reality is that neither of us has enough information to say whether or not a crime occurred. Whatever the case, damage to property which exists to serve the public good is never desirable.

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