Chiquita Stephenson was appointed acting president and chief executive officer at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now for at least six months after the agency's board of directors conducted a nearly two-hour closed-door meeting Tuesday night.
The board voted 14-1, with one abstention, for Stephenson to serve as acting president and CEO for a "minimum term of six months," ending Feb. 6, and for a national search to begin immediately to fill the position on a permanent basis. The board's motion, which was voted on without any public discussion by board members, said NEON employees could apply for the permanent position.
"The motion passes clearly," Bill Westcott, chairman of NEON's board of directors, said after asking for a roll-call vote.
Stephenson, who has served as chief operating officer at NEON, said she was happy with the vote and that she was interested in being the permanent CEO.
"Regardless of what the timeframe is, our goal is to focus on continuing to move the organization forward," she said. "With the staff of NEON, we have the right and experienced individuals to take us to new heights."
Stephenson said she and her staff had worked "day and night" to get the nonprofit anti-poverty agency back on its feet after the resignation of Joseph Mann, NEON's former CEO, and the replacement of NEON's former board of directors.
"I would be crazy to take all the hard work I have done and my staff has done and hand it over to another person," Stephenson said.
She said NEON had regained the trust of the state Department of Social Services, one of its main funding sources, and that her accomplishments "show why it's important that we stay the course."
Stephenson said she's worked at NEON for seven years and was a consultant and director of development and public relations before taking the position of COO. After Mann resigned in the face of allegations of incompetence, mismanagement and misuse of agency funds, Patricia Wilson Pheanious was brought in to replace Mann and was expected to stay in her position until Sept. 9, but it appears Pheanious will leave about a month early because of the board's vote.
Westcott announced just after the meeting started in a second-floor conference room at NEON's 98 South Main St. headquarters that he would not allow public comment, and the board then voted to go into a closed-door session. Westcott said the board had allowed public comment at previous meetings concerning who should be the acting CEO and that he had received legal advice that said the board wasn't required to have public comment at its meetings.
"We feel there has been more than ample opportunity for public comment," Westcott said.
About two dozen members of the public left the room after the vote for a closed-door session.
John Mosby, who said he was a NEON board member for 12 years before the old board was disbanded, said he wasn't pleased by the makeup of the new board or how it conducted business. He said NEON's bylaws said the board was supposed to have one-third of its members from the community, but the bylaws had been changed to reduce the number of board members and eliminate community representation. He said the new board was comprised of "corporation executives" who have been "shutting the public out."
Mosby said he met with the state Department of Social Services' staff in Hartford earlier Tuesday to air his concerns.
Mosby and Ernie Dumas said the method of selecting the acting president and CEO to replace Pheanious should have been an open process that involved the solicitation of applications from within NEON and outside of NEON.
"I'm not saying she's not capable of handling it, but there's a process and she should go through the same process," Dumas said, of Stephenson. "This is a community center ... a community program and the community has a lot to say, but we're being neglected."
"They've already had plenty of public comment, so that's not a factor for me. I'm OK with not having it," she said. "Let them get to the business of the day, of the night, so we can come back in and see what it's going to be."
Davis said she supported Stephenson because Stephenson knows the community and had worked hard to get NEON back on its feet after the scandal that led to Mann's resignation.
"I'm definitely in her corner 150 percent, and I'm hoping she does get that opportunity," Davis said midway through the board's closed-door session. "I'm going to stand behind her because I know the hard work she does. I know the sleepless nights she and her staff have had."
Davis said criticisms of Stephenson were that she was part of NEON's old management team and may not have the academic credentials for the job. But Davis said Stephenson had nothing to do with the allegations that led to Mann's resignation and shouldn't be held accountable for that. She said it wasn't necessary to have a degree to do a good job and be successful.
Davis said that Pheanious had recommended Stephenson for the job.
"People just need to give her the opportunity," Davis said. "If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. Why are we making such a big deal out of this? Would you rather have someone come in who doesn't know the community and doesn't have the ties?"
Gail Meaney, the human resources director at NEON, also attended Tuesday's meeting and said she backed Stephenson for the job of acting president and CEO.
"I do think she'll be a good CEO," meaney said. "She's very well connected in the community. She works tirelessly for the agency, and I really hope the board approves her appointment tonight."
Meaney said she wasn't bothered by the lack of public comment at the meeting, saying it was a "decision the board is going to make and we're going to support the decision the board makes.
"The most important thing here is serving the clients to the best of everyone's ability. Sometimes I think that gets lost."
Meaney said NEON helps people with, among other things, energy assistance, getting jobs and early childhood care. Davis said, "No services have been disrupted. They're still being provided and they're still remaining respectful."
Regarding Mosby's concern that members of the community weren't represented on the new board, Davis said they had that opportunity.
"They had the opportunity to submit resumes," she said. "Anybody interested in sitting on the board, all they had to do was fill out the paperwork. It was on the website. It was announced everywhere.
"When they were recruiting the board members, certain criteria were set up. Community people had the opportunity to come out. If they wanted to be part of it, they could have."
But NEON's merger with CTE of Stamford didn't allow former NEON board members to serve on the new board, which oversees both agencies, now known as NEON Norwalk and NEON Stamford.