Municipal officials who have worked closely with Mike Handler for years as members of the New Canaan Emergency Operations Center describe him as respectful, professional and skilled—a description that is at odds with a picture that has been painted by the town’s highest elected official.
The widely popular emergency management director resigned from the volunteer position last week at the request of First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, setting off impassioned debate among New Canaan residents who long have been accustomed to Handler’s timely and reassuring updates during emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moynihan has said Handler’s own “conduct” brought on the request for his resignation, offering no details other than 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,” and town officials responded to a public records request for any emails Health Department staff complaining about him to Moynihan in the week prior to his dismissal by saying there weren’t any.
Asked for an assessment of the job Handler did with the EOC, Fire Chief Jack Hennessey said he’s worked with Handler since coming to New Canaan in 2006 and he “never witnessed any harsh or mistreatment of any of the volunteer or town staff team members working in the EOC over the numerous activations we have had in the past 10 years.”
“Mike Handler and his team has always done an exemplary job for the town of New Canaan,” Hennessey said.
“He always demonstrated a high level of skill in managing the Emergency Operations Center during his tenure,” Hennessey said. “The EOC is not a place or a room, it is a team of people who when confronted with a crisis support the needs of the town by bringing services back online as soon as possible. The EOC uses our first responders and other town staff to respond to trouble spots and fix problems. As most people in town are aware, Mike’s communications during past incidents and the current COVID emergency are informative and comforting.”
Moynihan on June 3 advised members of the EOC, in an email obtained by NewCanaanite.com, that he had asked for and received Handler’s resignation. The email said it was “due to a disagreement over his handling of the Covid testing and his treatment of staff and other personnel,” though Moynihan has declined to offer details in subsequent press briefings and interviews.
A petition calling for Handler’s reinstatement has garnered more than 1,000 digital signatures in three days.
Police Chief Leon Krolikowski said he “had the distinct pleasure of working with Mike during many significant storms, events, and training exercises” for more than nine years in the EOC.
“Mike’s broad but focused knowledge, work ethic, skill set, and love for the town was remarkable and unmatched,” Krolikowski said. “His leadership in the EOC helped us all successfully navigate many emergencies.”
Town resident Stuart Sawabini, a New Canaan Police Commissioner for 12 years who has been involved with the Community Emergency Response Team for 17 years, said his work with Handler “has always been positive and a pleasure” and that “New Canaan should consider itself extremely lucky to have had Mike.”
“He has been superb in every regard,” Sawabini said. “He is a natural leader, giving firm direction and yet being inclusive of others’ opinions and suggestions. He anticipates issues and builds strategic plans. He has supported dozens of staff who represent the first and second responders.”
Fire Marshal Fred Baker said he has worked with Handler through “several events since he became EMD [emergency management director.”
“I have always found him to be respectful and professional,” Baker said.
New Canaan Emergency Medical Services Capt. Phil Sheibley said Handler “did a great job organizing the town’s efforts quickly in the spring so that we had a coordinated and comprehensive approach to minimizing the impact of the pandemic in our town.”
That, in turn, “made the demands on EMS practical to handle and lower than many other towns saw during those first several months,” Sheibley said.