NORWALK, Conn. – Tensions between two South Norwalk non-profits were a topic at last week’s mayoral forum as three Democrats sought to answer an angry question.
“The South Norwalk Community Center has been stripped of a $106,000 HHD grant that is in place specifically to help members of the Hispanic community in Norwalk,” SNCC spokesman Patrick Ferrandino said. “… What can be done to assure that the needs of the Hispanic community and the greater South Norwalk community at large can be served with the funds that have been taken and misappropriated and, from what we understand, may have been moved to Stamford as opposed to Norwalk?”
Ferrandino was referring to a Hispanic Human Development grant, a Connecticut Department of Social Services program that strives to “assist low-income Hispanic individuals and/or families with employment, training and other social services support needs and assists clients towards becoming economically self-sufficient,” according to the DSS website.
The HHD contract is between Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) and DSS, NEON interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said. The South Norwalk Community Center has never been named as a subcontractor on the contract with the state, she said.
“They weren’t stripped of anything,” Pheanious said.
The outgoing leader – Friday is her last paid day with NEON – repeated a refrain that will be familiar to anyone following the situation: This goes back to the fact that SNCC Executive Director Josie Castillo was being paid by NEON, although NEON had no control over her activities.
Pheanious said – again – that DSS required her to create a formal subcontracting agreement with the center. That effort created animosity, she said, as she and other members of her staff had a “big blow-up” with SNCC Board Chairman Warren Peña, an at-large Common Council member.
“He kept insisting Josie was his employee,” she said. “Well, ‘if she’s your employee then why aren’t you paying her?’”
The center did not have any of the documentation it needed to form a subcontracting agreement, she said. That includes an organizational chart by program, proof of non-profit status and certificate of insurance.
Pheanious said she told Castillo, Peña’s aunt, that she could no longer carry the title of SNCC executive director. She was offered work at NEON, but declined.
“It wasn’t about stripping them of anything,” she said. “It was about correcting the record, getting the people who are being paid by NEON working for NEON.”
Yes, it had been going on for 25 years, Pheanious said, and Castillo had done a good job. But there was no written agreement to make sense of a ridiculous situation, she said.
“The only way to make sense out of that is to do what I did,” she said.
That prompted Peña to release an open letter, which said, in part, that “NEON has fired SNCC’s executive director and taken her salary off the contract.”
Pheanious and other NEON staff members did not reply to Peña in the press. But Pheanious said her lips are getting much looser as her status as NEON spokesperson fades and she becomes a private citizen.
“I’m not going to allow somebody to say NEON was taking advantage of the South Norwalk Community Center,” she said. “If anybody was taking advantage it was them.”
She said she told Peña that when she rectified the situation the chips would fall where they may. If the HHD grant was the center’s only funding, that would be a natural consequence of the failure to come up with the subcontracting agreement she was required to create, she said.
Pheanious said said her agency’s relationship with the center is outlined in a document she prepared in April in an effort to explain the recently developed festering hostility to new board members. That document is attached below. Information cited in black print is derived from documents provided by Pena. Blue print is information from NEON’s files.
In the document, Pheanious explains the “stripping of the grant” this way:
“After failing to get the SNCC Board to agree to developing a subcontract — or even to supply basic information about their finances — I decided that the only leverage I had to get this information was to remove them as a subcontractor. This would allow for us to form a proper subcontract with someone — even if it did not turn out to be SNCC.”
SNCC board members inquired about taking over the grant, Pheanious wrote, but said they lack the proper documents.
Ferrandino said Thursday he is meeting with DSS on Monday to discuss the grant. He said NEON is “not directly servicing the clients those funds were intended to serve” and that the center is “trying to get access to at least apply for that grant.”
His question last week to the candidates, former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling, Common Councilman Matt Miklave and District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra, followed a soliloquy by South Norwalk activist John Mosby.
Mosby said that, when he was on the NEON board of directors, there were programs to help everyone.
“The Hispanics and blacks should be working together because I’ve got this feeling there’s a little group that’s trying to divide us, but they ain’t going to do it,” he said.
Rilling and Mangiacopra mention Mosby’s comments in the video above.
Rilling said he couldn’t answer Ferrandino’s question because he didn’t know how the funds had been “diverted,” and there is a need for “a full revelation” of where the funds are, but people shouldn’t be fighting with each other.
Rilling said he thought the problems between the two agencies was very unfortunate.
“We live in this community together and we have a vested interest in making sure this community is as good as it can be.”
Miklave said that, over the years, he had been impressed with people who work at and volunteer for non-profits and how dedicated they are.
“There is more that unites us as a community than there can ever be that divides us,” he said. “Though we may have our disagreements and our sources of discontent, we cannot let those break the bonds of affection that unite us as a people.”
Mangiacopra said he applauds the work the center has done to reorganize.
“Nobody wants any of these organizations, whether its the one downstairs or the one upstairs, to fail,” he said. “We all want these organizations to succeed. They all have mission statements and purposes. We need to make sure we’re operating with integrity and focus on what their mission truly is.
Ferrandino said Thursday that he’s hoping the situation with NEON is improving.
“There’s an air of cooperation out there and we’re hoping we’ll be able to capture it,” he said. “… Now that a controversial individual has left I believe that relations with NEON can only get better.”
NEON board Vice Chairwoman Susan Weinberger struck a similar note.
“Since April, it has been a difficult situation,” she said in an email. “But the issues should be able to be resolved easily. NEON owns the second floor and SNCC owns the first floor. An agreement is in preparation that will clearly define space and who pays what for all the utilities, telephones and other shared items. I am confident that the issues will be finally resolved so that both NEON and SNCC can co-habitate and both can offer valuable services to the constituents they serve.”
She said she had been touched by the gathering for the mayoral forum.
“I could not help but notice when I walked in to the building the other night for a NEON meeting on the same night as a mayoral debate in the SNCC Community Room on the first floor that these are two great organizations that just need to learn how to get along with each other. I am committed to making that happen.”