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.”