NORWALK, Conn. – The shadow of scandal is clearly influencing attempts to create a new social services agency to pick up the pieces of the bankrupt Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON).
An investigation into potential wrong-doing at NEON is needed to reassure the community that the people involved in a new agency have the highest degree of integrity, said the Rev. Dr. Lindsay Curtis, who is involved in one local effort to create a new Community Action Program (CAP) agency.
That effort is looked at with concern by a state community action leader, who said Thursday that the utmost transparency is needed in the wake of NEON’s scandalous demise. Meanwhile Pat Ferrandino of the South Norwalk Community Center is advocating a “hub and spoke” idea for a decentralized agency that would not implode if one component collapsed, as he said was the problem with NEON.
Curtis said the state’s attorney in Hartford is investigating NEON. Mayor Harry Rilling confirmed that. “I have spoken with an agent of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office – I am not able to comment further on that matter,” Rilling said in an email.
Curtis said questions need to be answered, questions that shouldn’t dog anyone trying to establish a new agency.
“I don’t see how you can do it without answering those questions,” he said. “We’re still moving forward with trying to reconstitute a CAP agency in Norwalk, but I want to try to answer as many questions and not be distracted from providing the services to people and still having to answer questions over what happened. The best way to do that is to have an outside investigation. I don’t want to be accused of anything other than trying to do this the right way.”
Curtis said Rilling, state Sen. Bob Duff (D-25), NEON founder and former CEO Bobby Burgess, state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) and the Rev. Tommy Jackson, NEON’s transitional CEO and president, have been involved in the move to form a group, which he said will be called “The Community Action Agency of Norwalk.”
That’s CAAN, a derivative of President Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan, Curtis said. When the State’s Attorney certifies that even those who were involved with NEON are innocent of wrongdoing, the group will form articles of incorporation and a board of directors, hopefully with 21 members, he said.
But Curtis is aware of the “not so fast” component here – the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) will eventually put out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for an agency to take over local social services. The purpose of forming the group is to be ready to respond to that RFQ, he said. The idea is that CAAN would be responsible only for Norwalk, Curtis said.
NEON merged with CTE of Stamford shortly before its downward spiral became public. The expense of that merger was cited as one of the biggest reasons for NEON’s overwhelming debt.
Whether CAAN has people who were involved with NEON is “totally up to the state’s attorney,” Curtis said.
The South Norwalk Community Center will be invited to participate, he said. “This is not about division, this is about unity. This is really about providing the services,” Curtis said.
“I think he’s got the best interests of the city at heart and he’s trying to provide the services that have been needed,” Rilling said Wednesday. On Thursday, he confirmed that he has been peripherally involved: “I have been in meetings with persons regarding the formation of a CAP agency. I have been briefed on various issues, but have not been actively involved in forming any CAP agency,” Rilling wrote in an email.
Duff said Wednesday he had reached out to Jackson for information but had not heard back. In April, Duff said a new CAP agency would likely replace NEON, and he would want all the services to be available in Norwalk.
Curtis said he can’t give a time frame on any of this because it’s up to the state, which hasn’t yet issued an RFQ.
“Who knows, but perhaps six to eight months out, if that, maybe a little bit later. But as you probably are well aware, this is no easy process. It took a lot longer than I think we had anticipated even getting to the bankruptcy phase. The investigation is the second step. Then I suppose we could see the third step, the constitution of a CAP agency. There are a lot of pieces to this.”
Indeed. Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA) Executive Director Edith Pollock Karsky indicated surprise Wednesday at Tuesday news reports that a new group expected to step in.
“I think clearly, with all the problems that that NEON has had in the past couple of years, I would really be much more comfortable in any new group if there was a real transparent process,” she said. “I almost feel like it has to be taken out of the hands of individuals and any sort of cast of characters that has been associated with the agency in the past and really begin with people who have no apparent conflicts of interest and are above and beyond reproach and have only the interest of the community – that’s the primary reason for being together. I think it almost has to come from elected officials.”
No names other than Jackson or Curtis were released earlier this week.
Karsky emphasized the process of forming a new CAP agency, with a board of directors that is a third elected officials, a third people from the private sector and a third low income people from the community served by the agency. This can only begin when DSS puts out a RFQ, she said.
“This group may be a group that applies,” Karsky said, of CAAN. “Another group may be forming that applies, another Community Action Agency that is contiguous to area. In most states what happens is those agencies that have contiguous service areas apply.”
Rilling should begin the process, she said, inviting the right mix of people to a meeting that is open and transparent.
Moreover, CAP agencies these days are expected to cover an area that is larger than just Norwalk in order to save on administrative costs, she said.
“Of course people would want to have their own local service area that just involves one city, but that’s not how in this day and age, with federal and state funding being pulled back and lessened year by year, I don’t think it makes sense. I can understand how the merger of CTE and NEON wasn’t a merger that (inspired confidence). But that was started by two agencies trying to figure out how to operate with less administrative expenses. I guess they both had their own set of financial problems and no one was aware of those at the time.”
A single-community agency is not the trend, but it’s up to DSS, she said.
“I’m not sure if they would entertain just a single city Community Action Agency,” Karsky said. “They may, I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to anyone at DSS about that. I think that because of what has happened in the past, the local officials in the Stamford area and in the Norwalk area don’t want to see those areas combined, and I can understand that.”
Ferrandino said Tuesday that SoNoCC is interested in becoming the CAP agency for Norwalk. Karsky said she has spoken with him twice.
“That is another group that feels they know what is best for what the Community Action Agency looks like,” Karsky said. “What’s going on now in the community, especially with the division in the African American and Latino communities, it’s not a good approach for these different groups thinking they will serve different customers. I told Pat, with Community Action Agencies the only qualification for the people we serve is an income qualification. You can’t just be an agency that has a mission of serving the Latino community. He seems to be a very intelligent person who has really tried to think out, or who has really laid out his ideas of what should happen in the community. I understand he grew up there, but he doesn’t live there.”
“It was interesting that she would suggest that the South Norwalk Community Center is not capable of serving the community,” said Ferrandino, a New Canaan resident, and he pointed to SoNoCC’s relationship wiht Norwalk Public Schools as an example. NPS and SoNoCC will work together on an after-school program for all South Norwalk children at 98 S. Main St. starting in the fall.
The registration for NPS After the Bell program will be open and all inclusive, he said.
Ferrandino said a new CAP agency should be based in South Norwalk, where the greatest need is. But SoNoCC would also reach out to surrounding communities, such as Wilton and New Canaan, he said. As for Karsky’s concern that a CAP needs to be sprawling in order to keep down administrative costs, Ferrandino said the SoNoCC concept is lean and “very fine tuned.”
“Our concept of a Community Action Agency is one that would be decentralized but still would be a one-stop shop. The way we envision that is the executive management team would be very trim. Possibly an executive director, a deputy director, a development director, then you would have an accounting department led by a CPA, with accounts receivable, accounts payable people. Then you’d have case management personnel and maybe only a couple, three, that would be the initial screeners to determine the families’ needs.”
Social service agencies would subcontract through the new CAP and be given office space at the center, at 98 South Main St., he said.
“The hub and spoke concept is one that each spoke would be a program that a competent social service non-profit agency in the area would submit a proposal and be selected and would operate,” Ferrandino said. “If one of those spokes then became broken, the program would not run properly. The wheel keeps turning as opposed to what happened is NEON, when they became the jack of all trades, master of none, one program failed because of the miscalculation in funding and it imploded the entire organization.”
He has thought it out to the point of saying that the political component of the proposed 15-member tripartite board of directors would be the mayor and four Common Council members, two from each party. There would, “of course,” be diversity, he said.
“That is something that is lacking at NEON,” he said. While the majority of NEON’s clients were Latino, no one on the board or staff was Latino, he said.
He said he didn’t know anything about an investigation.
“I would hope that state officials would do their due diligence to understand exactly transpired at NEON and that if there were any irregularities, any misconduct, that those were involved are held accountable,” Ferrandino said. “I also believe that a Community Action Agency needs a fresh start in Norwalk. That includes any past players. Part of being able to properly serve those in need is the ability to move away from the problems of NEON’s past. Those problems and past scandals are not just recent.”
While Curtis spoke of needing to put together an organization untainted by NEON’s past, he also said Burgess was involved in CAAN. Burgess took over NEON in 1972 and retired from the organization in 2003. In the 1990’s, Burgess and NEON were hit with a succession of sexual harassment lawsuits. While there was no admission of guilt, NEON paid nearly half a million dollars to settle the suits.
“I believe that there are those who need to let go,” Ferrandino said, “and new leadership needs to emerge within the community to move the process forward. There’s been too many skeletons in the closet.”
We have attached here a document from the Nov. 13, 2013 DSS Audit final draft, in which CAFCA responds to allegations made by the then-NEON staff and Board of Directors. The inclusion is in response to a commenter who is insisting that it was CAFCA’s responsibility to monitor NEON. This document responds to that allegation, made at the time by NEON leadership.