NORWALK, Conn. – There were celebrations in parts of South Norwalk Monday – a $30 million grant for Washington Village, and a ground breaking at The Pearl – but at 198 South Main St., there was upheaval.
There was a protest, a board meeting, and a metaphorical blood-letting at the South Norwalk Community Center headquarters. When the fog cleared, the South Norwalk Community Center was without several free community programs, its interim executive director and, at least for now, its chairman of the board.
Over the past several weeks, an internal struggle between Chairman of the Board Warren Peña and Executive Director Marina Forero-Ferrandino and her husband, Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino, had grown into a major tug-of-war, leading to Forero-Ferrandino being removed from her executive director position, to be replaced on an interim basis by her husband, Pat Ferrandino, who had been deputy director.
The couple has been working in those capacities for about a year without pay. During that time, and with Peña as chairman, SoNoCC began to establish itself as a major resource for the Latino community in spite of their very public battles with Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), with whom they shared the building. With NEON heading into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, after which it will cease to exist, SoNoCC was working toward a bid to become the new CAP agency for the area, a one-stop-shopping place for social services.
SoNoCC also struck a deal with Norwalk Public Schools to host an After the Bell program to give South Norwalk children a safe and supervised place to go after school, and has been working toward taking over the former NEON summer camp next summer. The camp will be run this summer by the Carver Foundation.
Still, the internal battle grew. Forero-Ferrandino established an outside 501(c)(3) non-profit agency to provide free programs for SoNoCC. The popular programs included music training for local youths. After Forero-Ferrandino was removed from her leadership post, she continued to provide the programs.
This all came against the backdrop of allegations of financial improprieties against Peña by both Ferrandinos, culminating in a June 21 memo from Forero-Ferrandino to the board calling for Pena’s removal.
Meanwhile, Peña and the rest of the board, including Vice Chairman and Agent Ed Camacho, were concerned that Forero-Ferrandino’s non-profit, Impact Others, presented a conflict of interest for the center and Ferrandino. Peña also said it was seen as a conflict by Tricia Massucco, the program manager for SoNoCC’s After the Bell program, which is in partnership with Norwalk Public Schools. He said the situation could jeopardize the partnership.
Citing the memo and other communications with board and staff members, Peña accused Forero-Ferrandino of attempting to ruin his reputation with false accusations.
Forero-Ferrandino and her programs were terminated June 25.
Peña then accused Ferrandino, who had signed a memorandum of understanding to take over as interim director for 90 days, of writing his wife’s letter and of insubordination, among other things. Peña issued a 12-point letter to the board explaining why Ferrandino needed to be terminated, and wrote the termination letter, thanking Ferrandino for his service and accusing him of insubordination and conflict of interest.
The termination was effective immediately.
The letters were presented to the board and to Ferrandino at a Board of Directors executive session at SoNoCC Monday evening as about 30 protesters demonstrated outside in support of Forero-Ferrandino and calling for Peña’s removal. When the chairman arrived, protesters followed him inside and confronted him and the board.
“They refused to leave,” Ferrandino said late Monday night. The protesters wanted to know why the programs Forero-Ferrandino ran had been cancelled.
“Warren said it was because of the construction” planned to ready the center for the fall’s After the Bell program.
“That’s complete nonsense,” he said. “Americares is going to continue to operate. From the 7th to 11th of July, there’s the Youth Workforce Training Program. There are a number of rentals, including one booked by Warren – LUC (Latinos Unidos de Connecticut) on July 16.”
Ferrandino said SoNoCC is not close to being ready to start construction, which he was to supervise.
“The building permit not even pulled yet,” he said. “The bidding was closed last Thursday. I met today with the builder to try to work out pricing. The bids were $35,000 higher than the original plan. The work will only include the area of the school.”
Monday night there was no word about if or when the programs would return. Ferrandino said the musical recorder class, run by volunteers, would resume in Ryan Park when it is not raining.
Peña said Monday night, “I have taken a leave to focus on my State Rep bid.”
The former Common Councilman is challenging fellow Democrat Bruce Morris for the right to represent the 140th District in the state General Assembly. Morris, attempting to win a fifth term, is the party nominee, having beaten Peña, 222-99, in a May election. Pena secured enough petition signatures to force a primary election Aug. 12.
Peña also addressed the allegations leveled against him by the Ferrandinos.
“The allegations of impropriety are baseless,” he said. “Pat and Marina are simply upset because the board moved in a different direction.”