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Opinion: SoNoCC debacle just more trouble for people who don’t need more trouble

Mark Chapman
Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman is  a 36-year news media veteran whose experience runs the gamut from sports to features to news, and who has run newsrooms in Massachusetts, New Jersey, both Carolinas and Florida. He was features editor for The Hour, a reporter and editor for The Daily Voice, and is editor of NancyOnNorwalk.

Sunday, July 6, 4:28 p.m.: Some editing was done to this story to restore changes that were dropped in a system glitch. Beginning in paragraph seven (there were missteps), other editing changes have been made to clarify.

NORWALK, Conn. – Just when some people thought – or hoped – the bad news coming out of 98 South Main St. was over thanks to the imminent demise of NEON (Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now), the area was slapped in the head once more by people who were supposed to be there to help.

Let’s be clear here. No one at this web address is saying Warren Peña, Marina Forero-Ferrandino and Pat Ferrandino did not enter into their relationship with South Norwalk Community Center (SoNoCC) with good intentions. We are saying that good intentions sometimes go bad, and that, sometimes, judgment can be clouded by personalities.

For much of the time Warren Peña has been chairman of SoNoCC, there has been public controversy. Peña did battle with the forces of NEON over building expenses, territory and the use – or misuse – of grants intended to help the Latino community. At the same time, SoNoCC was running on fumes, and with familial relationships that called into question whether the Center could or should be taken seriously by agencies with money to give. Peña’s aunt was the executive director, giving his family virtually unfettered control of SoNoCC.

But things began to change when Peña took over. According to a timeline provided by Peña and attorney and board member Ed Camacho, Peña discovered $25,000 missing about a month after taking over as chairman. Complicating the matter: It was Peña’s aunt, the executive director, who had not deposited the funds. Peña said he addressed the situation and assumed it was handled. Then, about two months later, he discovered the cash was still not in the bank. That’s when he found out his aunt did not have $25,000 to return.

She needed time to get the money, he said. Firing her would have been counterproductive because she would have lost her only income. Plans were discussed to pay it back over time.

When Marina Forero-Ferrandino came aboard to replace the woman, whose salaried job had been taken over by NEON, she discovered the problem and threatened to go to the police. Peña said the wheels were already turning by then, with his aunt cashing in her retirement account to get the money. Forero-Ferandino and her husband, Pat – both of whom ran the center for a year as volunteers before being fired last week, claim it was Marina’s threat that got the money back.

There were missteps by Peña, errors caused by understandable inexperience coupled with unearned arrogance, errors such as carrying on a very public feud with NEON instead of keeping it under the radar, and using the center for political gatherings. Peña disputes the latter, and says the one partisan event that took place was when a room was rented for an hour. The Ferrandinos, backed up by others, say the rental rate was well below market rate, which is illegal. A printed postcard handed out after a “get out the vote” effort bore Peña’s name in large type and his picture – while he was running for Common Council. He admits the misstep and agreed to pay for the mailing and the get out the vote workers.

Other claims of excessive spending and misuse of credit cards have been denied and, in some cases, debunked with receipts that show lower costs and legitimate expenses.

So what next? The Ferrandinos, who were building for the future – SoNoCC’s and their own – are gone, but not completely, as readers of our comment section can see. Peña is on leave of absence while he campaigns for  seat in the legislature. Camacho, who is also a member of the city Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Democratic Town Committee chairman, is walking some very fine lines when it comes to conflict of interest.

Mayor Harry Rilling made a cryptic statement after the SoNoCC meltdown.

There are sometimes hidden opportunities in chaos, Mayor Harry Rilling said Wednesday in reference to the South Norwalk Community Center.

What Rilling didn’t say is the city has a trump card it did not hold until NEON went down for the count. NEON and SoNoCC were co-owners of the building, and, if anything happened that caused both agencies to cease providing services, the city could exercise a “reverter” clause and take ownership of the building. That would give the city a home base for a new group that could be put together to serve the entire community.

“I am optimistic that we can start moving forward,” Rilling said. “I have started that process and, without getting into specifics, because I have had some confidential conversations with people, that’s going to, I believe, give us the opportunity to pick up the pieces, rebuild quickly and get up and running.”

Rilling said his first priority is to find a new space for the free children’s music class that has been displaced and is now taking place in Ryan Park. He said he didn’t think the current situation would have any impact on the Board of Education’s plan to run the After the Bell program there.

But he did hint at bigger changes, changes that would be aimed at bringing Norwalk’s lower-income residents together regardless of national, color or anything else. The one exclusion Rilling should consider before making any commitment is anyone who has been a part of the problems in the past. That means anyone involved with NEON going all the way back, right up to and including the Rev. Tommie Jackson. That includes board members. The same would go for the SoNoCC team. Fair or not, they have all been tainted by what has happened. What any new agency needs most is to be truly new, fresh and untainted. Find your leaders outside the realm of politics. Empower them, put them in a position to earn the respect and trust of the people they will be charged with serving.

“There’s been problems at the South Norwalk Community Center regarding the board for a while now,” Rilling said. “I have spoken with several people and have had at least two meetings in regards to South Norwalk Community Center, a ‘where do we go from here’ kind of thing, and you know, sometimes, something has to crumble to the foundation before you can start proper rebuilding. I think that sometimes, out of chaos, there are hidden opportunities where we can now say we’re picking up the pieces, rebuilding and put together a program that is going to finally start delivering services to the people without having the problems that we have experienced in the past.”

Comments

5 responses to “Opinion: SoNoCC debacle just more trouble for people who don’t need more trouble”

  1. Pat Ferrandino

    The inability or the unwillingness to assume management responsibilities by the South Norwalk Community Center Board of Directors has become apparent in just a few short days.

    This past Thursday, a Chilean Dance Troupe was shut out of SoNoCC for an hour as an imminent thunderstorm was approaching. This morning, a church congregation that rents a room at SoNoCC for their weekly Sunday morning service has been waiting outside for almost an hour and, last I heard, were still outside waiting for Ed Camacho to stop by and open the door.

    Lest we be accused of not properly informing the Board of pending activities, my wife and I have spent five hours during the past several days going over the details with a Board member selected by the Board to assume certain managerial duties.

  2. Oldtimer

    Well said, or reported, Mark. We can only hope some phoenix will arise from the ashes and provide the necessary services. Good intentions are not going to be enough. A highly trained professional administrator is going to be needed, probably as a city employee. Just keeping track of the conditions on the various grants and keeping records of compliance will require a well trained book keeper. It is not realistic to expect that level of leadership without the City committing to hiring some professionals.

  3. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    .
    Obviously NEON has completely ceased providing services. I don’t believe the same can be said of SoNoCC, even though the services appear reduced since departure of the Ferrandinos. Can the City retake control of 98 South Main Street if only one of the two agencies has ceased providing services?
    .
    I am shocked by this statement you attribute to Warren Pena:
    .
    “She needed time to get the money, he said. Firing her would have been counterproductive because she would have lost her only income. Plans were discussed to pay it back over time.”
    .
    Is there more to this story? Did Mr. Pena really say that it would be counterproductive to fire someone who improperly took $25,000 in SoNoCC money? SoNoCC had to keep employing her so she could pay back the money she stole from SoNoCC? By this logic, NEON should have continued to employ Joe Mann so that he could pay back the improper expenditure of NEON funds.
    .
    I understand the reasons why Mr. Pena shouldn’t be involved in SoNoCC’s future. Clearly he crossed a line in using SoNoCC space and funds to support his political campaign.
    .
    I have doubts about excluding the Ferrandinos, who spent a year volunteering nearly full time for free to help build SoNoCC’s programs. I don’t believe there are many people willing to dedicate so much time and effort without compensation. Also none of the accusations against the Ferrandinos have been substantiated. Mr. Pena’s laundry list of complaints about the Ferrandinos is filled with vague allegations.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @LWitherspoon

      The reporting is accurate. I don’t want to publicly speculate on motives.

      As for the rest, the Ferrandinos did volunteer for a year, which was quite admirable. But there were issues that caused a deep divide between them and Mr. Pena and ultimately even their biggest supporters on the board. That they have taken a scorched-earth approach on the way out the door, trying to bring down the very center they tried to help build, with accusations of things they said happened throughout their own tenure in charge, is troubling. The bottom line is that, when you have situations like this, everyone is tainted. It isn’t always fair, and some of the people who threw the biggest stones at people who were involved in NEON boards prior to the damning audit, are people who have not been involved in any such organizations or served on such boards. Joe Mann was a respected and trusted public leader, a former colleague of some of the people on the board. They trusted him. There were good people on the NEON board right up until the end — misguided in some instances, but decent, honest people. The same with SoNoCC. I have nothing but respect for Ed Camacho, for instance. I do not know the Rev. Oscar Destruge, but have heard nothing but great things about him. Neither man deserves anything but kudos for their work to try to help the Center. (I don’t know anything of the others involved so I cannot comment.) But there is a division in the community caused by this very public situation, and there will be, going forward, trust issues with those involved. That is, as the piece was labeled, my opinion. Mr. Camacho spoke with me yesterday and strongly disagreed, and I understand and respect his opinion as well.

  4. Tim D

    A very fair piece of writing. And the Oldtimer adds some valuable points.

    Words of caution: Anyone considered for the rebuilding of whatever agency arises from the ashes ought to run for cover if any current or former associate of NEON & SoNoCC are involved at all. Including Mr Camacho right thru to Mr Burgess. Run from them because they will destroy any admirable attempt at rebuilding. It’s been proven.

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