Mayor Caroline Simmons’ pick for economic development director made it through the first step of approval but will face questions when she goes before the full Board of Representatives for a final decision.
Four members of the board’s Appointments Committee voted this week to recommend that Leah Kagan get the job, and two abstained, saying they want to know whether Simmons considered other candidates, how much Kagan will be paid, and whether Kagan’s existing position as Simmons’ special assistant for economic development will be filled if Kagan is promoted.
City representatives who support Kagan’s appointment said she gained valuable experience working with the former economic development director, Loren Nadres, who abruptly quit in May after 17 months on the job, saying in an email, “I will be moving on from my current role to explore new opportunities.”
Kagan, who served with Nadres for the length of her tenure, said she learned a lot in those months because they were a team of two.
“I had the opportunity to partner closely with the previous director on all the initiatives we were leading … and an opportunity to run the Mayor’s Business Advisory Council, which is our main way to connect with business executives,” Kagan told the Appointments Committee.
“Over the course of my time here I have been able to step into a leadership role … and the mayor thought I would be able to seamlessly transition and carry over our major initiatives,” said Kagan, who was campaign treasurer for Simmons during her 2021 run for mayor.
Some city representatives questioned Kagan’s background in nonprofit organizations, which is very different from Nadres’ background in global development.
Kagan worked for the Anti-Defamation League as director of development and interim regional director for Connecticut. Before that she was director of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England; associate director of the anti-poverty agency Single Stop; major gift officer for Americares; and development officer for American Jewish World Service.
Nadres had been an assistant vice president at the New York City Economic Development Corporation; director of economic development in the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs; and held positions at World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the United Nations.
In September Simmons and Nadres launched the Global Stamford Initiative, intended to promote the city as a home for international businesses looking to move or expand.
“The former director came from a huge organization in New York City that took a global approach” to economic development, city Rep. Bradley Bewkes said to Kagan during her interview. “Where do you see your own experience leading to that level?”
Kagan said she took part in many meetings involving the Global Stamford Initiative, and that skills she earned in the nonprofit field translate to the field of economic development.
“Before joining the administration, much of my experience was in fundraising, almost a sales-driven role (that involves) going out and pitching the organization that you work for,” which is similar to pitching Stamford as a destination for businesses, Kagan said.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood asked whether Kagan expects to increase staffing in the Office of Economic Development. Other elected officials have also questioned staffing – during budget deliberations in the spring, the Board of Finance cut a new position, project manager, that Simmons proposed for the office. It would have paid $122,000 a year.
“You are the first special assistant to the mayor for economic development, correct?” Sherwood asked.
“I believe so, in a full-time capacity,” Kagan said.
“If you get the position, do you anticipate hiring someone for the position you would be vacating? Or would you be running the office the way previous directors have, which is absent the position you’re in now?” Sherwood asked.
“We could use another team member,” Kagan said. “That would be my goal.”
Sherwood also had questions about salary.
“We bumped up the salary for the previous director. We were told we had to do that to attract high-level talent,” Sherwood said. “It is a lot of money.”
Nadres was slated to earn $184,292 starting July 1, according to the city budget.
“We were told this position needs to be paid tens of thousands of dollars more than the previous director was paid because we were getting someone from New York City who had tremendous experience and would make a lot of headway,” Sherwood said. “Now that we have someone who does not have that kind of experience, I want to know what the plan is for compensation.”
There was no answer during Tuesday’s meeting. But the following day Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Simmons, said Kagan, if appointed, would be paid $163,816 as of July 1, an amount Meyer said is commensurate with a cabinet position. It would be $20,476 less than what Nadres was paid.
In her existing role, Kagan would be paid $134,457 starting July 1, according to the city budget.
Meyer said Kagan’s position will be filled if she is promoted.
Sherwood questioned whether Simmons did a search for a new director.
“Was there a process for people to apply?” she asked.
Meyer answered the question the day after the meeting, saying, “The director of economic development position was not posted. The role is a cabinet-level position and serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and therefore can be appointed by the mayor.”
City Rep. Kindrea Walston said her goal for the new director of economic development would be to include community development.
“I know the companies are coming, but where are the high-paying jobs? Especially when rents are way up?” Walston said. “I’m a West Side rep, where it’s five or six families deep to a house, working in shifts to make sure the rent gets paid. I want more for Stamford; I want people to benefit more.”
Walston asked whether Kagan would work with the school system to ensure graduating students have the skills employers need.
It would be a priority, Kagan said, and she would look to the Connecticut Office of Workforce Strategy, which seeks to provide citizens with meaningful career paths, and businesses with access to a skilled workforce.
“We can do a better job to make sure our residents are aware” of that resource, Kagan said. To ensure that “people can be trained in jobs where jobs are going to be available … working more closely with the schools is critical,” she said.
Several representatives asked Kagan to outline specific plans for developing the city’s economy.
“Retail is not as strong as it should be,” she said. “I will work with the Chamber of Commerce to get people to shop locally, and spotlight local businesses this holiday season.”
For long-term business attraction, “we do need a marketing plan for Stamford when meeting with potential businesses. That was not something that happened previously. If I am in the driver’s seat, it will be one of my primary goals to have marketing and communication materials on hand.”
City representatives wanted to know whether they could be provided with progress reports on businesses that move into the city and other measures of economic development.
“I do not believe we provided regular reports to the boards,” Kagan said. “I would be happy to do that going forward.”
Asked what other things she would do differently from her predecessor, Kagan said she would develop “better relationships with the Board of Representatives and Board of Finance.”
City Rep. Bianca Shinn said Kagan “has demonstrated her leadership … working in nonprofits to raise funds requires enormous diplomacy. I think she’s the right person for the position.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger said he still has questions.
“When I look at the experience, I see someone well-qualified in nonprofits, but that’s not what this is,” Boeger said.
“She’s been here 18 months,” Walston said. “I think more experience is needed. It’s a big responsibility.”
City Rep. Denis Patterson, who worked in the city economic development office under former Mayor Dan Malloy, said he supports Kagan’s appointment.
“This is the mayor’s nomination to make. We can have a discussion on qualifications but, if she is confirmed, the mayor is accountable. This is the person she has chosen to do the job and if that is not the case, the mayor will be judged.”
Kagan’s appointment is on the agenda for the board’s July 5 meeting