NORWALK, Conn. – Longtime Stamford resident and businessman Mike Berkoff will assume the chairmanship of the Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Board of Directors after being elected to the post at a special meeting Tuesday night.
Berkoff, who is also an 11-year Stamford Police Commissioner, replaces Attorney William Westcott, who resigned from the board Sept. 23 after serving as chairman since May.
Also Tuesday night, Kathleen R. Williams, a Norwalk volunteer who has been active with school groups, was elected board treasurer. She replaces Christopher Ruzzi, who resigned that post Sept. 27. Ruzzi remains on the board.
Ruzzi “could not do it at this time,” Williams said, adding that she’s looking forward to his continuous help.
Berkoff, a board member for two months, takes over leadership of the board at a critical time for the embattled social service agency, which is undergoing a Department of Social Services (DSS) audit and is on the hook to pay back more than $300,000 in misspent federal funds that it received through DSS. There is a search underway for a permanent president and CEO. Chiquita Stephenson recently took over on an interim basis for up to six months after an 18-month interim appointment of Pat Wilson Pheanious expired in early September. Pheanious had been sent to NEON by the DSS.
“I look forward to the challenge of moving NEON forward from where it is,” Berkoff said after the vote. “I am hoping to turn it around, that we can get the organization turned to help the people that need the services from NEON.”
Berkoff was elected on a 9-0 vote with three abstentions. The other five current vboard members were absent from the Norwalk meeting.
Berkoff, CEO of BevMax with more than 100 liquor stores stretching from Connecticut to Florida and Massachusetts to Denver, according to board member Jack O’Dea, said he is ready to meet the challenge of taking over and dealing with the agency’s problems.
“I will be working with management, side by side,” he said. “The management that is in place now has only been here basically 30 days. I’m looking forward, I’m not looking backwards. I will work with current management to try to put the pieces together, because that way here we can get current reporting.”
Berkoff said that NEON is moving toward transparency and gave Stephenson, who took over the president and CEO roll amidst a swirl of controversy over her academic credentials, a vote of confidence.
“From what I have seen in the last 30 days, under Chiquita Stephenson, we have seen a lot of positive things moving forward,” Berkoff said. “You can’t take an agency that has been upside down the last five to seven years and turn it around in 30 days. I believe Chiquita is the right person for the job and I believe that, with our help, with the board, we will be able to work with her, side by side, to move it forward.”
“He brings a tremendous amount of business acumen,” O’Dea said. “Also, he’s a very mature guy, well-connected.”
O’Dea said Berkoff is on Republican Mike Fedele’s Stamford mayoral campaign committee, in spite of being a Democrat. He has served as police commissioner under both Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, and current mayor Michael Pavia, a Republican.
“Mike has an ability to get along with people,” he said. “Getting along with people is something this organization needs more than anything else.”
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