Ex-city of­fi­cial takes job with de­vel­oper

Stamford Advocate - - FRONT PAGE - By Angela Carella

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.”

Han­dler

Michael Cummo / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

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.

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