NORWALK, Conn. – Pat Ferrandino spent time – again – Friday morning getting the lights back on at the South Norwalk Community Center, which he says is reason for the failing Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) to be evicted from the city-owned building the two South Norwalk non-profits have shared since it was built.
“I believe that by impeding on the services of two social services agencies that NEON has violated the terms of the covenant and should therefore be evicted from this building. They should lose their right to this building” said Ferrandino, the SoNoCC deputy director.
Friday morning was the second time in less than 24 hours that NEON officials had ordered the electricity to the first floor of the building – occupied by SoNoCC and the health clinic AmeriCares – to be shut off.
Ferrandino said he was on his way to the University of Connecticut to pick up his child when a volunteer called and said the power in the building was off again, although there were people in NEON’s space on the second floor. He turned around to come to Norwalk and called Norwalk Police, he said. AmeriCares officials called him expressing concern about the medication and about being in the middle of a dispute, he said.
“The building was locked,” he said. “Police said there was no way to get in, it was locked, there was no one answering the door. They referred me to Deputy Chief Sue Zecca. I left a message. … I believe the mayor was also advised of the cutting of the electricity.”
Ferrandino said he was planning to call Norwalk Police and file a harassment complaint after breaking in to the areas again to restore power, but the power was turned back on. He quoted NEON Facilities/Maintenance Manager Charles Brown as saying, “I was told to turn the electricity back on because we don’t want to risk spoiling the medication.”
Ferrandino said he did not know how long the power had been off.
“We have to see if there’s been any damage,” he said. “Hopefully the medical supplies at AmeriCares as well as our computers are not damaged.”
Jackson said Thursday that NEON staff had been sent into the building at about 9 p.m. “to repair the damage” done by “vandalism.”
NancyOnNorwalk sent an email to Jackson asking if that had included turning the breakers off again. Jackson and NEON board Chairman Mike Berkoff declined to comment, citing the importance of the Good Friday religious observance underway. Jackson said he would answer that question Monday, as well as respond to other allegations made by Ferrandino.
NEON sent SoNoCC leaders a letter on March 23 demanding money for the electric bill, said the Rev. Tommie Jackson, NEON transitional CEO and president. An email was sent Thursday saying NEON would shut off the power in the building due to non-payment, Jackson said. That was done, he said.
Ferrandino said that, at about 7 p.m. Thursday, he got a phone call from volunteers telling him the power was off. It was not cut off by South Norwalk Electric and Water, he said. NEON shut it off by turning off the breakers. The breakers are in a mechanical room that is locked by NEON, he said. NEON has the only key.
After calling Mayor Harry Rilling and explaining the situation, Ferrandino led a break-in to two mechanical areas to restore power, citing the expensive medications in the refrigerator at AmeriCares and Rilling’s sanctioning of the tactic. Handyman Michael Roman also broke into another area, which connects to NEON’s receptionist area, under Ferrandino’s supervision.
Ferrandino said Friday that that area is needed by SoNoCC as part of its upcoming renovation. NEON has been denying access, he said.
NEON, which by most accounts is nearing bankruptcy, and the South Norwalk Community Center share 98 South Main St. NEON has the entire second floor and parts of the first floor. SoNoCC leaders say their organization has the rights to the entire first floor, rights granted in a quit claim deed.
The electricity dispute is the latest chapter in what has become a public struggle between the two social service agencies.
South Norwalk activist Ernie Dumas said Friday Ferrandino is to blame.
“Pat Ferrandino has created a problem,” he said. “It’s not all NEON’s fault.”
SoNoCC has not done its fair share when it comes to sharing the building, he said. “Everybody has been quiet, except for Pat Ferrandino and Warren Pena,” he said, repeating the recent history: Pena’s aunt was in charge of the center, until she retired last year after being told by former NEON interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious that she would have to report to NEON, not the SoNoCC. Ferrandino’s wife took over the role as a volunteer. Ferrandino eventually volunteered, too.
“He came there wanting to change everything around,” Dumas said. “When NEON was in charge and NEON was doing what they were doing, the Latino people didn’t go neglected.”
A November letter from the state Department of Social Services, however, says NEON failed to provide services it was obligated to provide under a contract with DSS from April 2013 through Oct. 17, when inspectors showed up to investigate the agency, which was labeled an agency “in crisis.” DSS terminated NEON’s contract to provide those services.
“This stuff between two minority groups has to stop,” Dumas said. “It’s boiling over and it’s making everybody angry – and some of our officials are backing our guy.”
He cited Rilling.
“I don’t think our mayor is playing a good role in the whole issue,” he said. “Our mayor is actually supposed to be in the middle of the road of all this stuff. He’s the one who is supposed to be solving the problems. He’s not.”
“I have been in the middle of the road trying to work with both sides,” Rilling said. “I think a comment like that is disingenuous. I just don’t think Ernie knows all the details. I can certainly understand his confusion.”
Rilling confirmed that the power had been shut off but didn’t know if it had been shut off twice. He said he spoke to Jackson and told him the power needed to be on to keep the medications intact.
“I told him, ‘This week I’m going to have a meeting in my office and we are going to sit down and resolve the immediate issues that need to be resolved so we can start moving forward on a final resolution on all of these issues,’” he said.
Ferrandino said the power shut-off would have been a problem even if there weren’t medications at risk. The center is hosting a seminar Saturday morning and an Easter egg hunt Sunday, he said.
“Their intentional action was impeding both our ability and the ability of AmeriCares to do business,” he said. “We called police to let them know that their act was intentional. We believe it was malicious and intentional on the part of NEON. A tenant was essentially being illegally evicted based on cutting off electricity through no fault of their own, in a breach of their tenant agreement.”
He said the tactic might be valid in a residential contract but he didn’t think it was valid in a commercial contract.
City Hall was closed for Good Friday. Rilling said he didn’t have access to the quit claim deed and did not know what clauses, limitations or restrictions might be in it.
“I haven’t seen the deed. That’s something for the law department,” he said.
Ferrendino said the door to the mechanical room has been locked for months. “Although we have repeatedly asked NEON for a key, they have refused to provide us a key,” he said. “Each time we have had an architect or engineer down here as part of our design phase for the renovation, we have had to beg them for access.”
Jackson has no roots in Norwalk, he said.
“Rev. Jackson rarely is seen at this building,” he said. “If NEON, as published reports indicate, may be closing, this just appears to be a malicious and vindictive attempt on his part to stimulate and draw us into controversy. We want to stay focused on the good work that we have been doing in collaboration with some of Norwalk’s finest institutions.”
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