Ten of the 12 members of Montclair’s Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, including the chair and vice chair, resigned this week following the Township Council’s move to reorganize the committee, first formed in 1985.

Resigning members say the reorganization undercuts their role as advocates for senior issues, and imposes an unnecessary set of rules for who can serve as part of the group.

“We will continue to advocate for the senior community, but not under the limitations imposed by this council. Therefore, we, the undersigned members of the SCAC board, serve notice of our immediate resignation,” the 10 members wrote in a resignation letter to the Township Council on Monday, Feb. 14. A version was published as a Montclair Local Town Square guest column as well.

But multiple Township Council members say they value the work SCAC has been doing, that there may have been misunderstanding as to the intent of some of the changes, and they hope the issues can be worked out. 

The committee’s bylaws, as adopted in 1986 and updated in 2002, say the group will act “as an advocate in the interest of all senior residents of the township and assist in dissemination of information to the public.” But wording in a Jan. 18 Township Council resolution reorganizing the committee — part of a process to revisit the structure for all township committees — doesn’t mention advocacy.

It instead says the committee “shall advise in the interest of all senior residents of the township and shall make recommendations to the Township Council and staff, as specified by the township, regarding programs, policies and the dissemination of information.” It also says the committee, again coordinating with the township, shall “serve as liaison to seniors in the community and direct seniors to appropriate sources of information and assistance.”

Susan Craig, who had been the chairwoman and who was one of the members who resigned, said she spoke to Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams about the changes, and was told the removal of a reference to advocacy was “very specific.” Price Abrams introduced the resolution along with Councilman David Cummings. 

“[We were told] that we need not to be seen as adversarial,” Craig said. “That was a very specific and conscious choice.”

The township is also requiring all members who wish to continue their service on the committee to reapply, and has set a new set of criteria for board members — which specifies there will be representatives from several senior organizations as well as multiple affordable senior housing projects. Resigning members say that's unnecessary because the SCAC already represents the township’s seniors well. 

Price Abrams told Montclair Local by email Tuesday that the SCAC reorganization was part of a review she and Cummings are conducting of all bodies to which the council makes appointments. She said she agrees the committee has had diverse representation, but said they sought to broaden it further. 

“We are seeking to ensure that there is broad representation of those with experience and knowledge in areas of interest and constituencies. As to SCAC, we modified the ordinance to ensure that there was representation across different groups where seniors gather or live, so we expanded representation to capture residents of the Township's senior housing buildings and those who volunteer at or participate in [Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning] offerings, for example. We want to understand the needs of all seniors,” Price Abrams said. “I don't fully understand their decision, but respect people's right to make choices.” 

Her message didn’t address whether the changed language was meant to discourage an advocacy role.

Cummings said by email that the ongoing effort was intended “to bring some synergy to [the] process of residents joining committees],” and to make sure committees and boards can work collaboratively.

“I can tell you there was no intent of eliminating any group from advocating for the best interest of the population they represent. That’s essentially what all of the committees do,” he said.

Cummings said he believed it was important that committees “reflect our diverse population,” and that he and Price Abrams were working to accomplish that.

“It’s an arduous task but we made a pact that we were not going to rush the work,” he wrote. “I have empathy for those who decided to step down. I hope that doesn’t mean they will not continue to lend their time and talent to this important committee.”

Pending the application process and appointment by the council, the current 12 members were to continue as holdovers. All members other than Clarence Jackson and Roger Terry had signed the resignation letter.

Councilman Bob Russo said township officials felt the SCAC needed more widespread representation.

“As the ‘senior’ council member, who has worked with most of these great volunteers over my many years on the council, I regret the misunderstanding of the council’s intent in reorganizing the SCAC. We want all areas of town to be represented," Russo said. "In the case of the SCAC, three appointees are from the same [residential] building. So we would like to see more volunteers to represent all senior buildings, and certainly ‘advocate’ for policies and programs that would benefit our growing senior population."

At a council meeting Tuesday night, Russo also urged the members to reconsider their resignations. Price Abrams told them: “We saw this as an expansion. If this is a misunderstanding on your part, we would welcome back people to fill out the form.”

But resigning members said the resignations weren’t only about the new language in the resolution, saying seniors’ needs and input have been neglected for years. 

“It’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back at this point,” Ellie Bagli said. 

Under the SCAC’s bylaws, it’s tasked with providing the council with information on the needs of Montclair seniors, assessing and recommending services for seniors to the township, recommending and requesting funding for development of senior services, advocating on the behalf of seniors and assisting in the dissemination of information to seniors.

More specifically, in the past, SCAC members would conduct surveys and compile reports to assess the needs of Montclair seniors, make programming and service recommendations to the township, disseminate information by mail and email four or five times a month with information on senior events and issues, and advocate on issues for seniors’ health and well-being, longtime SCAC member Ann Lippel said.

She said the Township’s IT manager told her Montclair would stop reimbursing the SCAC for Mailchimp, the platform it used to send out emails, in August of 2020.

The resolution passed in January says all public communication by the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee will be issued in coordination with township staff.

According to the members who resigned, they were presented with the resolution just a few hours before the vote.

“We can advise, but only on what is expected from the council,” Craig told Montclair Local.

The resigning members pointed to the language in the resolution saying the SCAC should advise officials “as specified by the township.”

Lippel said that most of the SCAC’s past surveys and reports weren’t solicited by the council, but served to inform the township on the implementation of programs and services to meet the needs of seniors.

The committee recently took a position to back Quiet Montclair, a group opposed to the use of gas powered leaf blowers. Even though SCAC members felt that the issue had an impact on the well-being and health of Montclair’s seniors, they were advised by township officials they should not take a position on the issue, Craig said. She declined to say who from the township told the committee members that.

The committee has also strongly advocated for a dedicated senior center and on issues with ADA accessibility and parking during renovation at the temporary senior center at Edgemont Park House. Now members are questioning if they would be able to continue any advocacy work at all.

“The new regulations explicitly eliminate SCAC’s advocacy function, which is necessary to gaining council attention. Instead, the council has informed us that they want us to play an ‘advisory role’ only. Acceptance of this limitation would require us to compromise the commitment we made when we joined the SCAC to work on behalf of Montclair’s older residents,” the resignation letter reads.

Township Council members Robin Schlager and Peter Yacobellis said they were surprised by the notice of resignations of the majority of SCAC's members — Bagli, Lippel, Craig, Gail Abramowitz, Barbara Chase, Rose Cofone, Louella Dudley, James Eason, Jeanette Jimenez, Lippel and Frank Millspaugh. 

“Some of the people who resigned I have known for a long time and I know them to be dedicated and committed members of the committee and to our town. It is my hope that we can work something out for all. Dedicated volunteers, like these, should be applauded and appreciated, I am truly sorry this happened,” Schlager said.

Yacobellis said he valued the members. 

“I’m terribly sorry if my vote for the resolution made you feel otherwise,” he said, responding to the resignation letter. 

While in the past, the bylaws specified that the 16 members would consist of “senior citizens, residents professionally trained and experienced in the services for the elderly and other interested residents,” the pool of the now 15 committee members under the new resolution is more defined. 

It will consist of senior citizens and professionals in senior services, but will include at least one homeowner and one renter. There will be a representative from each of several groups — AARP-Montclair, Aging in Montclair, Do Drop In, Gateway to Aging in Place, Montclair Senior Housing Action Group, Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning (one participant and one volunteer), and each of Montclair’s affordable senior citizen housing projects (specifically First Montclair House, South End Gardens, Montclair Inn and Pineridge of Montclair).

“Our issue with that is that it fails to recognize how well the board already represents our town’s diversity,” the resigning members wrote in their letter. “We are members and volunteers in Montclair’s many civic and social organizations. We are active in houses of worship and cultural organizations that serve the entire community. We are renters, homeowners, and condo owners. Some are lifelong Montclairians; others have recently chosen to live here.”

Dudley said that the seniors should be a respected part of the community.

“The council should solicit our advice on our seniors and their needs. … There should be an equitable distribution of funding that reflects our numbers. We now make up 20% of Montclair’s population. It will make the township better as a whole,” Dudley said.

Lippel noted that Montclair’s Age-Friendly Community Action Plan is certified through AARP. The plan commits to improving public infrastructure by enhancing streets and creating safer pedestrian crossings, increasing access to transportation, easing zoning restrictions to build ADUs, and increasing the availability of alternative accessible and affordable housing options. The plan also commits to increasing access to health care and caregiving support.

“A lot has not been addressed,” Lippel said, arguing for the importance of the committee and support needed by the Township.

Both Yacobellis and Russo told the members they hoped they would reconsider their resignations. 

“This feels like the result of a breakdown of communication more than divergent values or expectations of roles or valuing of your service.” Yacobellis said. “I would ask you to consider not resigning and rather — open a dialogue to see if this can be worked out. The substance and merit of working on issues that affect thousands of Montclair seniors has to matter more than administrative language in a resolution that is never set in stone. Or at least I would hope it would.”

— Includes reporting by Talia Wiener