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Norwalk's Mann No Longer Leads NEON

Updated, 9:56 p.m.

NORWALK, Conn. – Joe Mann is out. The embattled leader of the Norwalk nonprofit Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now is "separating from his employment as NEON's president and chief executive officer," according to Greg Burnett, chairman on the board of directors.

Burnett made the statement after the board met in an extended executive session Thursday night during a special meeting at NEON. Mann was not present. The move came just more than a month after the Office of the Inspector General released an audit of the agency's Head Start operation saying that more than $400,000 had been spent in ways other than authorized.

The report recommended that the money be paid back.

Norwalk's political leaders – Mayor Richard Moccia and every member of the city's delegation to the state legislature – called for Mann's resignation Feb. 24. Head Start parents subsequently presented a petition with more than 400 signatures, demanding that Mann resign.

More than 30 of the people who signed that petition waited in the hallway outside the shut door Thursday night, growing impatient as the board deliberated in private for nearly two hours. They were dismayed that they hadn't been allowed to speak at the meeting and occasionally knocked on the door to show their disapproval. John Mosby, a former board member who had a 600-signature petition demanding Mann's resignation, said the executive session should have been held earlier so that the public was not made to wait without so much as a chair to sit on.

When the door finally opened, the crowd flocked in. The board followed procedure: Carvin Hilliard made the motion to go forward with the decision the board had made in private. Board members voted yes, and Burnett read his carefully worded statement, which he would not deviate from on the advice of counsel.

"Mr. Mann will continue as an employee on leave, with pay, from his duties, pending finalization of the terms of his separation," Burnett said. "I would like to thank Mr. Mann for his cooperation as this will allow an interim CEO to start immediately, as has been requested by the Department of Social Services. Accordingly, it is my intent that the new interim CEO will commence his or her duties forthwith, hopefully tomorrow. If not, no later than Monday morning."

Patricia Wilson (Coker) Pheanious, who has a law degree as well as a master's in social work, is the new director. She will serve six months as the board conducts a nationwide search for a new CEO, Burnett said.

Those who had been waiting in the hall were not impressed. Mosby angrily said the board should resign and women chanted, "Cut the cord, lose the board."

"People have been saying Mr. Mann should step aside," Burnett said quietly to the media in response to questions for clarification on the statement. "Mr. Mann is stepping aside."

The yelling continued.

Pheanious has a history of public service, most recently as manager of human services for the city and county of Denver, Colo., from September 2008 to July 2011. Her previous 20 years of serving vulnerable populations was in Connecticut, and she is a resident of Ashford.

She has provided legal representation to child clients in family and juvenile law matters, co-authored a resource book on adoption of children with special needs and provided consultation to private nonprofits, state and federal agencies, according to an eight-page biography and career summary provided by Burnett.

Board members said they had no input on her appointment. "She was hand-selected by the Department of Social Services," Burnett said.

In response to complaints from the public about the brevity of the public portion of the meeting, board members said that procedure had been followed and they were volunteers with jobs. Board members Doug Hempstead and Hilliard left quickly to attend Common Council committee meetings.

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