Opinion: NEON’s failures create need for city leadership

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.


8 responses to “Opinion: NEON’s failures create need for city leadership”

  1. Sara Sikes

    Agreed that leadership is missing at NEON but unsure that your suggested solution is the answer. Let’s remember that we have a weak mayor system, and members of the Common Council have sat on the NEON board for decades to provide oversight. They did nothing but overlook years of incompetent and corrupt management of NEON. Head Start would have been better served remaining at the Board of Education, who gave up the program 30 years ago. I believe NEON’s programs would be better served if managed by non-profits with experience in each area. Looks like that is the direction we’re headed already with Head Start and Half Way program.

  2. The Norwalker

    It would be more truthful to say that leadership is missing in both NEON and the City of Norwalk. Yes NEON’s top management needs to be replaced. At this point their reputations are so damaged that they have no choice but to hang around NEON for as long as possible.

    Mayor Moccia was right to worry about Norwalk’s Headstart Funding, but by simply putting a hold on Headstart funding he showed little concern for the Headstart clients and the ground floor Headstart workers who had to provide for the children without funding.

    If the Mayor was concerned about the on going operation of Norwalk’s Headstart he could have provided funding in smaller increments with each payment depending on the financial reporting on the prior spending. I have seen this method used before in fund accounting.

  3. Oldtimer

    Two years ago Moccia should have appointed a competent CFO with full authority over spending to keep the books at NEON, as a condition of the City grant. That would have been real leadership. Instead, he stopped the grant “until Joe Mann was out” and never re-started it when Joe Mann was out. Now NEON, after two years of drifting w/o competent leadership is on the rocks and losing federal head start support. Why is anyone surprised ? During that two years, NEON merged with a similar organization from Stamford, also in serious financial trouble, and is now drowning in the combined debt. Until competent leadership is put in place and some jobs eliminated the combined organizations will continue in a downward spiral and the finger pointing will continue. The real losers will be the clients that need to be served and have nowhere else to turn. Moccia is wrong when he says it is not his problem, knows he is losing, and is happily leaving it for Rilling to solve.

  4. WHAT?

    Why would the city or anyone else give NEON any money if it cannot answer the following simple question:

    Q: The federal government gave you money that was to be used for one thing only, the expenses incurred for the Headstart program during the specific time period of September and October of 2013. The vendors were not paid and meals to be bought with that money were not there for the kids. Where did that money go?

    Who would the city or anyone else give money to anyone that cannot answer a simple question like that? Please explain to me where Ms. Stephenson answered this brutally simple question in the 6-minute clip you played of her at City Hall the other night? For 6 minutes she rambled, saying things like “who knows a child better than the parent.” To be sure, that is an unassailable family truth. Hmmm… but as to the question about where the money went please . . . .? Money which was for one use and during one time period only? Yes, thank you, it is true that no one knows a child like its own mother–

    DSS has, in its own words, “laid the legal groundwork for decertification” of the entire program. Burueau of Prisons has pulled its contract. Now, the feds have suspended everything. But, according to you, a prudent and responsible city government should know better than all three of these major funders and hand over money? I ask you, on its face — does that sound like the fiscal management you would expect from any city anywhere, let alone a city with the specific history of the Joe Mann situation and all the rest? Stating that children and families need these vital services will always be a true statement, so does that mean there is no scenario under which a city can say I am sorry NEON but I just don’t trust you enough to give you money. If not, then how much worse does NEON have to get than this before you would agree maybe the city should not trust them with money?

    Another thing. Three weeks ago, Ms. Stephenson claimed the Headstart program was closed due to the government shutdown. In the feds letter, however, it is revealed there was 500k in Headstart money sitting there the whole time that NEON couldn’t be bothered to properly access, meaning they did not understand how to properly comply with federal program requirements. BUT, on October 17th, the feds say NEON suddenly did try to immediately access 250k. Why might that have been? Well, 250k is the amount of their payroll each period, October 17th was a Thursday, the day before payday, except that after they were told no, they moved payday to Monday instead of Friday. Do you read your own reporting?

    Yeah, there’s something missing here all right, Mark.

  5. jlightfield

    It is time for other aligned social service non profits to step in and pick up programs and services that NEON is now unable to perform. These programs should not be left to fall apart because of the misguided management of NEON’s present management and board.
    The City of Norwalk, should immediately terminate the lease of Ben Franklin and Ely school to NEON. The City of Norwalk should immediately offer assistance to Community Development Institute (CDI) to open Ely school as a Headstart location.
    The City of Norwalk should immediately contact the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and help secure the furnishings and classroom materials that are part of the Headstart program and funded by Headstart dollars t Ely.
    Norwalk’s legislative delegation should immediately assist CDI in obtaining the state license to run Headstart in Norwalk.
    A crisis is at hand here, and this situation has spiraled well beyond one of simple mismanagement or political grandstanding.

  6. Casey Smith

    I’m curious. I thought NEON was created specifically to be separate from the City government.
    I’m also wondering if City funds can be used for a Federal program without the City being held in contempt of violating the Federal decision.
    And to jlightfield – would it be more expedient to have the Headstart program go under the Norwalk Housing Authority until they can shift it over to the CDI group?

  7. Vincent Grillo

    When a political leader or local news paper of any city or town throughout this country is hearing of mismanagement at any department let alone Oak Hills, bad customer service, free golf being given away, poor management practices, one would think the person in charge would have the common sense to at least pick up the phone and ask what’s going on up there? My many phone calls and emails to meet this man always went unanswered to a point where I was told ( by a third party) “leave the mayor alone he does not want to meet with you”. Months after I left someone did manage to get through his door and present him with all the facts and evidence that everything he was hearing and even saying (Feb. 2012 council meeting 57 min mark) was totally untrue, his response, “it wasn’t me who wanted Vinnie out it was the BET”. I wasn’t calling and emailing to meet with the BET (and who wouldn’t want me out with everything he was telling the BET and someone was even managing to get The Hour Newspaper to do may editorials and stories about poor management up there without EVER checking with me.) I was trying to contact Mr. Moccia. After 15 years of running the golf course 2 with the city 1996-1997, 13 with the authority 1998-2011 and my fathers 31 years there, why not even a returned phone call from this mayor ? Ever hear of 2 sides to every story Hour News Paper and Dick?

  8. Young man

    Good Morning Nancy,
    I just want to know why the employees of Neon are not getting paid today like they were told if the checks came in on friday.Did they use all the funds to pay for head start? and why hasn’t the feds intervene on the financials of this organization. There’s going to be another uproar today cause there’s alot of disappointed and upset employees who were told they would be paid today. How can u expect employees to work but u can’t get paid on time?

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