NORWALK, Conn. – Something is missing in this NEON saga.
Reaching back to 2011, Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now was found through an office by the federal Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and later by the state Department of Social Services, to be misusing grant money from the federal government intended for allowable Head Start expenses.
There was a lot of chest beating and hand wringing. The audits said NEON President and CEO Joe Mann was using Head Start money for non-allowable expenses, and that there was money unaccounted for. It said there was nepotism, and that no one was holding Mann accountable. Mann was forced out of his job, although he kept collecting a paycheck.
Meanwhile Mayor Richard Moccia announced he would cut off city funding to NEON until it proved it had straightened out its financial house.
Good first move. Protect the taxpayer money from being misspent.
DSS sent in former DSS Commissioner Pat Wilson Pheanious for 18 months. Pheanious tried to get the city to restore the funding, but the city refused. Pheanious said not having the city money was creating a hardship. But the mayor held fast as evidence mounted that the financial situation was still a mess.
Then came autumn and Pheanious left at the end of her contract. There was a mass exodus from the Board of Directors, some of whom ripped NEON management on the way out the door. New interim President and CEO Chiquita Stephenson pointed a finger at the city for contributing to the agency’s financial woes. Moccia rejected the blame and put it squarely back on management, which stands accused of accepting huge raises and hiring relatives even as the red ink mounted.
All well and good, but the blame game only goes so far.
What is missing is leadership.
Two things are obvious. One is that the current NEON team cannot or will not fix this. NEON is being defiant and refusing to accept responsibility, rejecting all charges of wrongdoing and trying to blame everyone else for its woes.
The other obvious point is that Norwalk needs the services NEON provides. Thousands of residents are touched by NEON each year, residents who are at risk from low income, poor health, domestic violence. Children are at risk because they come from poor homes with single mothers who have to rely on Head Start so they can go to work each day.
That all those people are facing the possibility of NEON’s demise is not a NEON problem, it is a city problem.
At Thursday night’s City Hall rally by concerned parents, most politicians tried to ignore the commotion. With a League of Women Voters Common Council forum getting ready to start, along with a Hispanic Heritage celebration, more than 100 Head Start mothers packed the City Hall lobby after first going to the Nathaniel Ely school. They had gotten late notice that Head Start would be closed Friday, and that NEON’s license to run the program was suspended for 30 days. They were angry and scared and they wanted answers. They wanted to know where to turn for help.
As the group chanted for the program to be opened, politicians streamed into the building to attend the other events and brushed past the protesters. Three stopped to find out what was going on – Council candidates David Watts and Warren Pena and mayoral candidate Harry Rilling. As Rilling walked past a camera, he joined the chant briefly. Some people also chanted “We need Moccia,” seeking the mayor to try to plead their case.
The three candidates listened to what the people had to say. Rilling tried to reassure them that he had been told an out-of-town group would step in to run things. He was surprised to learn the program would not open Friday, although it was revealed later that NEON would open Friday for the children, but not as Head Start.
But Moccia was not there. His campaign manager and RTC head Art Scialabba, who was there, said he did not know where Moccia was. Perhaps he did not think to call the mayor and suggest he come to City Hall to meet with some upset citizens. Instead, Scialabba stood on the sidelines and took notes while Rilling, Watts and Pena took action.
And Friday, Scialabba issued a press release calling Rilling’s actions and motives into question, even suggesting that Rilling was leading the protest with Stephenson. Videos by NancyOnNorwalk and The Hour clearly show that was not the case. Rilling, a 41-year cop – 17 as chief — for whom diffusing such situations was part of his training and his job, stepped in and listened. He had just found out earlier in the day through a media report about the program suspension.
The Moccia campaign’s response? The taxpayers should be outraged at Rillling’s behavior.
Moccia was right to withhold taxpayer money, and to continue to withhold it until NEON gets its act together. But NEON serves a large constituency in need – maybe not a lot of voters, but a lot of human beings who just want to make it through the day and know their kids are safe and fed.
The situation screams for leadership from the mayor’s office. Someone needs to do something to help the people. That is something that should concern the mayor, because the last thing Norwalk needs is hundreds or thousands of families suffering job loss because of child care issues, and the loss of other social services.
Moccia reportedly told a crowded NEON meeting Friday night that it isn’t his problem, that maybe NEON management should not have hired relatives and given themselves big raises. He’s right about part of that – the raises in the face of a sea of red ink are indefensible, no matter who authorized them.
But he is wrong if he believes it is not his problem. If NEON continues down the drain, the results will be his – or Rilling’s – problem in the months and years ahead.
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