Mike Handler’s dismissal from the volunteer role “was against the public will and without cause,” according to the change.org petition, created by New Canaan resident Janet Fonss.
“Mike has worked tirelessly and honorably during his 20+ years service to New Canaan and nine years service as volunteer Director of Emergency Management,” it said. “During Mike’s leadership, New Canaan has weathered several crises with ease. His calm, intelligent, and measured approach has steered our town through many emergencies, including hurricanes, power outages, and storms. During the current COVID-19 crisis, New Canaan has become a proactive leader and model in communication, testing, and reporting thanks to Mike.”
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan on June 3 advised members of the Emergency Operations Center, in an email obtained by NewCanaanite.com, that he had asked for and received Handler’s resignation. In a press briefing the next day, Moynihan said Handler’s own “conduct” had brought on the request for his resignation, that there was an issue of “respect” and that complaints regarding Handler had come in for an extended period of time, from health officials and others. Handler called those allegations “hurtful and baseless.”
Asked Tuesday about the prospect of reinstating Handler, Moynihan declined to comment, saying, “I think I’ve said enough.”
Asked whether complaints were limited to high-level squabbling over the frequency and tone of the nightly 7 p.m. updates that Handler made via town-wide outcalls for several weeks after the onset of the public health emergency, Moynihan said no. Moynihan said he and the health director read through the script prior to the outcalls each night, and that the complaints were more related to people and relationships. NewCanaanite.com requested any emailed complaints regarding Handler from Health Department staff during the week prior to his dismissal. Moynihan responded by email, saying, “Complaints are rarely made by email—they’re made verbally by phone and in person and with tears.” The town in responding to the formal public records request later in the day said it could find no such emailed complaints about Handler.
Asked for his thoughts on the new petition, Handler said in an email, “I am unaware of any petition but very much humbled by the sentiment.”
As of midnight, it had nearly 600 signatures.
One week after his resignation, it remains unclear just what Handler did or in what way his conduct compelled Moynihan to ask for his resignation.
When asked about it during the June 4 press briefing, Moynihan said only, “You can’t crush other people and expect them to work as colleagues.”
It’s unclear which municipal worker or workers Moynihan referred to.
During a June 4 meeting of the Health and Human Services Commission, New Canaan Health Director Jennifer Eielson said that she has been working 16-hour days, seven days per week for months during the COVID-19 emergency, a schedule that cannot continue.
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “So I do need other people to help out.”
Yet “[y]ou can’t just pull anyone off the street” to do the virus test-related work that Health Department staff have been doing, she said.
“[Human Resources Director] Cheryl [Pickering Jones] and I worked on a job description that we are putting out and hopefully we can find someone,” Eielson said. “But there is also a big public health sanitarian lack of staff to begin with. So we will try to do what we can, but some of these other nonsensical things, other people need to start taking off the plate.”
Eielson said it’s manageable for the department if testing is offered three days per week rather than five.
“We are doing the best we can,” Eielson she said. “But with the testing, Rome is not burning. You don’t need to get tested tomorrow. We have an ongoing contract for weeks, so as long as we can continue to go on, there is no need to do five-day-a-week testing. There just isn’t. And the amount of work involved with that, of getting all the forms, getting them all to Stamford Hospital, doing all the reporting out—it’s not feasible. I cannot give medical records to any volunteer or Joe Schmoe off the street. That is HIPAA protected for people’s personal information. And people do not want Joe Schmoe off the street calling them with results.”
In responding to news article’s about Handler’s resignation on social media, local registered nurses said they have offered to help with the work on a volunteer basis and haven’t received responses from the town.
Asked about that, Moynihan said that during an emergency the superintendent of schools reports to him and all school resources are available to the municipality, and that it was his own idea weeks ago to enlist the help of nurses for contact tracing. Finding qualified volunteers to do that work was never an issue, Moynihan said.
The petition said that people are “deeply concerned” that Handler’s absence in the EOC “will not only cause anxiety and erode public trust, but will derail our town’s ability to respond to changing information and data with the necessary flexibility and agility.”
“Mike not only has the experience and thoughtful approach that we appreciate, but the data acumen and commitment to evidence-based science that will be needed to return our children to school safely and re-open our economy with confidence. We appreciate Mike’s responsive, communicative, and clear-headed style. With his absence, we are particularly concerned with ongoing access to objective and unbiased communication.”
In the event Moynihan does not reinstate Handler, the petition calls for the Board of Selectmen to call a vote “to determine who is the best person to properly lead the Office of Emergency Management.”
“We fervently believe that person is Mike Handler,” the petition said.
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