NORWALK, Conn. – There are sometimes hidden opportunities in chaos, Mayor Harry Rilling said Wednesday in reference to the South Norwalk Community Center.
“I am optimistic that we can start moving forward,” Rilling said, two days after the SoNoCC fired its volunteer interim executive director, who was largely responsible for brokering a deal to have Norwalk Public School use the center for after school classes in the fall. “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.
Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B), a former SoNoCC board member who recently said “illegal activities” were going on there, expressed regret for the impact on the community.
“I just feel it was something that was going to come and surface at some point in time. I just think that there were individuals that were just there for the wrong reasons,” Simms said, referring to SoNoCC board Chairman Warren Peña, former executive director Marina Forero-Ferrandino and Pat Ferrandino, who was appointed as interim director a few weeks before being fired Monday. “Personally, I just feel bad for the community as a whole, the Latino community as well as the black community. It’s a struggle. We always struggle to try to get programs and services and funding for our community. To see people who are self-serving, that come into our community and just look out for themselves, I just think that it was distasteful and they’re struggling. … This is something I was trying to bring to the attention of everyone early on when it first started happening. Now that they are out and at war with one another, now everyone is paying attention to all of this. ”
Ferrandino said his wife was working 60 to 70 hours a week without pay for a year to try to make the center work. He said he put in many volunteer hours as well, and was expected by Peña to be available after hours to do supervision for events in the multi-purpose room.
“It’s been one year of a labor of love and trying to develop something,” Ferrandino said. “We had this vision, put it all together. You know, we did it for free but we always told them that when the community center was able to support compensating us, we certainly would not say no. We needed to and that we had to look at — we have always been entrepreneurial. We have run businesses our entire lives together. At that point we said, ‘Well this could be an opportunity to give back to the community, but at the same time create something that could earn us a respectable income and that we might be able to do it and carry out until our retirement.’”
Ferrandino said the Rev. Oscar Destruge, a SoNoCC board member, has temporarily stepped down from the board to become executive director. He said he didn’t know if that would include compensation. Ferrandino said Destruge abstained in the vote to oust him.
SoNoCC board Chairman Ed Camacho did not return a late Wednesday email asking for details.
Ferrandino said that, as executive director, Destruge would be overseeing the construction expected to take place over the summer, funded by $200,000 in Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) money. Ferrandino said that, while he was still director, the board had offered him $20,000 to oversee that construction. He turned it down, he said.
Ferrandino said there was a plan to oust him but no plan to do anything after that. The current “chaos” at the center includes having no one there to supervise as a party continued Monday evening after the board meeting, Ferrandino said. About 75 people, including children, were in the building alone, he said.
He said he has been in touch with the attorney general through a lawyer about what he said were irregularities and violations of rules governing the non-profit.
The relationship between the SoNoCC board and the Ferrandinos took a negative turn when the couple recently found a post card while cleaning the mayor’s room, he said. The card featured Peña’s photograph and his name in big letters as a “Get out the vote” advertisement, and was paid for by funds from the 501(c)(3), he said. It was distributed prior to the last election, when Pena was running for re-election to the Common Council.
A 501(c)(3) organization, as a tax-free charity, is forbidden from supporting candidates, political parties or causes.
Ferrandino said he had planned to resign, but his attorney advised him to stay as a gatekeeper. It was expected that Peña would step down, but there was a turning point in the ongoing discussions when an email was produced that indicated that the Ferrandino knew about the post card.
Ferrandino said the email was sent eight or nine days after the event. He said he has “zero recollection” of being told anything about it before Peña spent $1,600 on the evnt, including the printing.
“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.”