First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said Thursday that he had received complaints regarding Emergency Management Director Mike Handler’s conduct prior to seeking his resignation.
Asked during a press briefing what was the issue that led to Handler’s ouster, Moynihan said, “Respect.”
“Respect for co-employees,” he said during the briefing, held via videoconference.
Health officials “among others” had lodged complaints, Moynihan said. Asked what were the nature of the complaints, he said, “You can’t crush other people and expect them to work as colleagues.”
The sudden news of Handler’s resignation, made Wednesday at Moynihan’s request, traveled quickly through the community and drew strong reactions. On social media, many have voiced concerns about the dismissal of a volunteer who has been in regular communication with residents on town-wide outcalls during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Asked during the briefing about feedback saying Handler’s resignation is regrettable given how much he has done for the town, Moynihan replied, “It’s regrettable that his conduct caused it, so you have to put the blame where it belongs.”
Yet it remains unclear just what Handler did, how his conduct merited pushing him out of an Emergency Operations Center that he himself helped steer during the ice storm of December 2008 or whether complaints about him amounted to a pretext for his dismissal. In a statement issued late Wednesday, Moynihan said Handler’s job was to “coordinate and communicate as the ‘voice’ of the EOC, but not as the ultimate decision maker,” adding, “Throughout any crisis, and especially during this pandemic emergency, decisions must be made after thoughtful and respectful discussion and debate.”
Asked during the briefing what decisions Handler had made or attempted to make that weren’t in his purview as emergency management director, Moynihan said he never asserted such.
In an email sent to EOC members Wednesday morning that was obtained by NewCanaanite.com, Moynihan said that he asked Handler to step down “due to a disagreement over his handling of the Covid testing and his treatment of staff and other personnel.”
Moynihan opened Thursday’s briefing by complaining about an article breaking news of Handler’s ouster based on that email.
“You printed your article yesterday without me having an opportunity to comment, so that’s not fair,” Moynihan told this reporter. “Especially when you get an email leaked by someone, you ought to make sure you have comment before you print something.”
He added, “When you get an email from somebody internally, wrongfully, then you ought to call me for a comment.”
Told that he did receive a call for comment and did not pick up, but had an opportunity to comment soon after the story’s publication when he phoned back, Moynihan said, “That’s not good journalism, in my view.” Asked what qualifies him to judge good journalism, Moynihan said, “I don’t know,” adding that other local news editors “probably have standards that they follow.”
Members of the Health & Human Services Commission referred to Handler’s resignation during the Commission’s regular meeting Thursday morning.
Based on the appointed body’s discussion, some of the tension appears to involve a push to conduct COVID-19-related tests five days per week versus three, given the administrative work such tests put on the very small New Canaan Health Department.
Commissioner Russ Barskdale Jr., who also is president and CEO of Waveny LifeCare Network, said that his own organization ran five consecutive days of testing, including 170 on the first day, “and it was unbelievable, the amount—we have three people in our HR Department and it certainly was not enough to do 170 and get all the logistics done.” He asked New Canaan Health Director Jenn Eielson, “Are you going to be able to—five days a week is impossible—are you still going to be able to do three days a week. Do you have the manpower for that?”
Eielson responded that three days of testing per week “is manageable, because then it gives me Monday and Friday to do the reporting out.”
“We are chasing after the forms,” she said. “Of course I am here seven days a week, 16 hours a day. But my staff can’t be here seven days a week, 16 hours a day.”
Eielson said New Canaan’s testing system and contract with Stamford Hospital is in place and so if there’s a flare-up of the virus in August and people want to be tested again, “it’s already there and ready to go, licensed and inspected.”
“We know the process works,” she said. “Five days a week is definitely not manageable.”
Commissioner Secretary Alicia Meyer noted that Eielson “cannot continue at same pace that she has been going.”
“What’s the plan for staffing in her department that also is urgently needed?” Meyer said, referring to an earlier discussion among Commission members about requesting the addition of one social worker to the Human Services Department.
“I’m hearing that Jenn is coming in seven days and 16-hour days and we don’t know what is ahead. We don’t know what spike is coming. And the fact that we cannot man testing five days a week—her staff is overwhelmed. They have to be, because they are in a terrible position. So the demand is there for the testing. Trying to get a spot to get tested is next to impossible. You go on the website as soon as you get the phone call and the spots are all taken already.” (The work done by Health Department officials cannot be handed to a volunteer, as the information in health records is protected by federal privacy laws and also requires training in the field.)
Given that it’s unclear whether more testing will be required come fall, the size of the health staff “is a concern to me,” Meyer added.
“Just as we need more staff in Human Services, we seem to need more staff in the Health Department,” she said. “Obviously yesterday, with the resignation of Mike Handler, it seems like that department is in a state of crisis right now, because they are understaffed. Jenn is working so hard and so well, and I want to commend her because it’s truly amazing. But she can’t continue to do this forever.”
The Commissioners agreed with Meyer.
During the briefing, while discussing the need to find a successor for Handler (the fire chief has stepped in on an interim basis), Moynihan said, “This is primarily a medical emergency, so when you have someone that is not a medical person as EOC director—this is primarily a matter of health decisions and medical advice. That is why my health director is a very important person to me.”
Handler on Wednesday issued the following statement via email: “There are so many reasons why I love to call New Canaan home, and why I have spent over 20 years volunteering for our town — the last 9 years as Emergency Management Director. I have always promised that I would only do what is in the best interest of the people of New Canaan. This promise is one that I am unable to keep under Mr. Moynihan. I am extremely proud of my service and I believe the town will be in wonderful hands under the leadership of my friend, Chief Jack Hennessey and our talented and dedicated team. I will certainly miss the honor of serving you all in this capacity and wish you all good health.”
Asked during the briefing whether complaints about Handler had come in over time, Moynihan said, “Obviously.”
“I’m not a rash person,” he said.