Ex-city official takes job with developer
STAMFORD — Mayor David Martin said Wednesday the city “will not work with” Michael Handler — his just-retired chief financial officer and architect of a plan to partner with a developer to reconstruct aging school buildings — now that Handler has taken a job with Building and Land Technology.
BLT, the city’s largest developer and property owner, has announced that Handler joined the company’s executive committee.
That’s troubling, the mayor said.
“I believe Mike Handler served our community faithfully for eight years and everything he has done for our city has given me the utmost confidence in his commitment to the people of Stamford,” Martin said in a statement.
“That being said, it is an unfortunate reality the private sector often recruits experienced government administrators to serve their own interests. I am disappointed Mike did not share with me his intention to leave Stamford to join BLT, despite the obvious concerns it would raise with me and Stamford’s community,” the mayor wrote.
Martin’s chief of staff, Michael Pollard, said last week that Handler, 49, told the mayor he was stepping down to spend more time with his family.
“I know Mike believes publicprivate partnerships could become a model to address the nationwide problem of neglected school infrastructure,” Martin continued in the statement. “I wish him the best as he continues to pursue solutions to these issues in the private sector, however — consistent with our ethical policy — the city will not work with Mike on potential (publicprivate) plans in Stamford.”
Board of Education member Michael Altamura said he thinks the issue raises ethical questions since Handler headed the Stamford Asset Management Group, a panel of city and education officials heading an effort to renovate schools, including renting space in a BLTowned building on Elmcroft Road to house Westover Magnet Elementary School, which had to be closed for repairs.
“It shakes me,” Altamura said. “I think we should probably investigate the doings between Mike Handler and BLT. We rent space from them; what else is there?”
In response to a question from The Advocate, a BLT spokeswoman said Handler will comply with the city’s Code of Ethics.
“A restriction exists for good reason that limits a former cabinet member from directly working with the city for a period of one year and Mike has every intention of following this restriction,” she said in a statement. “We are a firm believer in the public-private partnership model to improve school facilities and our education system. While Stamford is a perfect candidate for this, there are numerous locations throughout the state and the country where this model makes complete sense and will result in a tremendous benefit for students, teachers, parents, and the communities in which they live.”
School board President Andy George did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Members of the Board of Representatives have questioned Handler’s plan to replace five school buildings by signing them over to a private developer to reconstruct and manage, then have the city lease them from the developer for 45 to 90 years.
Handler did not provide details about the long-term costs, including the leases, and did not provide proof of his assertion that a private company could build and maintain the buildings for 70 percent less than the city, representatives have said.
Handler did not return requests for comment Wednesday.
Rep. Megan Cottrell, D-4, a vocal critic of the plan, said she thinks Handler wanted to use Stamford to create a model for restoring school buildings through privatization.
It was “a steppingstone for his other ambitions,” Cottrell said. “The (publicprivate partnership) was never about what was best for the kids.”
Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, has criticized Handler’s plan for its lack of details. Handler has said some of the information could not be made public because it would jeopardize potential negotiations with developers.
“Our municipal government in Stamford is far too influenced by large developers, and too interested in benefiting the connected few at the expense of the many,” Sherwood said. “It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s right there for everyone to see.”
In January and February Handler requested a total of $1 million to explore the privatization plan by seeking proposals from developers, and by starting to acquire “swing space” for students and staff to use during construction. Representatives refused to appropriate the funding both times.
Rep. Bradley Michelson, R-1, said he agrees with Martin that it’s disappointing Handler did not share his intention to take a job with BLT.
“That should have been done,” Michelson said. “And stating that he was leaving for another reason, spending time with his family, was a little dishonest.”
But, Michelson said, he shares the frustration Handler must have felt in trying to get representatives to explore options for rebuilding and maintaining schools.
“My guess is he left because he felt anything he tried to do was stifled, which I think is the case,” Michelson said. “As a Republican, he probably felt private partnerships can work, as I do. I don’t respect how he did it, but I understand the move overall.”
In a statement issued earlier on Wednesday, BLT said Handler will join BLT presidents Ted Ferrarone and Kevin Neuner “on a team committed to exploring the benefits publicprivate partnerships can yield for Connecticut and on a national level as we continue on our mission to create and enhance vibrant ecosystems where individuals can live, work, play and stay.”
Handler, a New Canaan resident, was appointed director of administration by former Republican Mayor Michael Pavia in 2012. Martin, a Democrat, kept Handler on when he first became mayor in 2013, and when he won reelection in 2017.
In the BLT statement, Handler said, “Having spent the past eight years working to improve Connecticut in civil service, I have gained an appreciation for the government’s strengths and identifying opportunities for improvement. Building and Land Technology is in a premier position to partner with municipalities, and I am thrilled to be a part of this dynamic team.”
Michael Handler, the former director of administration for the city of Stamford, speaks during the topping-off ceremony for the new police station in Stamford on Sept. 25, 2017.