The Montclair Township Council

Montclair Township Council held an extensive conference meeting on October 2 that lasted longer than the regular meeting that followed —90 minutes for the conference meeting to just over an hour for the regular meeting.  The reason for this was due in part to the cancellation of the September 25 conference meeting for Yom Kippur, but while the conference meeting had a small agenda, two topics—a tree planting resolution and vegetative waste disposal—took up a great deal of time.

At issue was a resolution awarding a contract to M.J. Hoag Contracting, Inc. to plant one hundred shade trees this fall at a cost of $17,825, the lowest of eight bids submitted.  Township Manager Marc Dashield told the council that the capital budget provides for the purchase of trees but no longer uses capital funds to pay shade tree workers in the Department of Community Services (DCS) workers to ensure a clear understanding of the matter, and he also explained the planting process.

“We make a list throughout the year and identify locations for the fall and the spring planting,” Dashield said.  “As all the trees are identified, they end up on the list.”  Dashield also said that any residents wanting trees at specific locations should inform the township in advance.

Deputy Mayor Robert Russo had asked Dashield and DCS Director Steve Wood about this because of complaints by First Ward residents to him, First Ward Councilor William Hurlock (who was away on business), and Mayor Robert Jackson about some mature trees that were taken down near 536 Valley Road by Essex County (Valley Road is also County Route 621) to repair the adjacent sidewalk.  Deputy Mayor Russo specifically wanted to know if Montclair could plant trees along a county road.  Wood said that the township helps Essex County plant trees on county thoroughfares, and he added that larger trees could be added to the next spring planning, when it’s a more appropriate time to plant larger ones.  Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, meanwhile, wanted to know about the costs residents have had to bear for repairing sidewalks broken by roots of trees planted by the township.

“Street trees are an attractive nuisance,” Wood said with resignation. “They improve the character of the town, there’s no question, but trees don’t belong on the side of the roadway, and they don’t belong between the roadway and the sidewalk. But we’ll never even make that argument because it improves the character of the town.” Wood said as street trees mature, they pose dangers such as branches and limbs that could fall or snarl power lines. The best course of action for street tree planting, Wood explained, would be to get trees that pose as little threat as possible, preferably a variety of species rather than one that can be killed by a species-specific blight, and avoid species known to cause problems, like the Bradford pear.  When Dr. Baskerville suggested a resolution in which Montclair would assume the cost of sidewalk repairs within a fixed time if township-planted trees are the cause, Dashield balked.

“To make such a resolution, you’re putting a huge liability on the town, I wouldn’t recommend you do that,” said Dashield.  “The community enjoys these trees, and there’s a price to pay for that.”  Wood added that no one can know how the roots of any tree are going to spread.

As promised by Dashield, Wood addressed Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager’s issue regarding the vegetative waste expenses on the bill list.  Wood explained that Reliable Wood Products collects grass clippings from May to October and picks up leaves collected by the township, the cost based on tonnage, transportation, and labor.  Reliable Wood Products has two separate contracts to collect grass clippings and to dispose of leaves, with the money spent on the grass totaling $253,000 in 2011.

“That’s a lot of money,” Councilor Schlager said.

As for the question of Christmas tree disposal, which Councilor Schlager said was $50,000, Wood said that the real figure was between $5000 and $7000, the $50,000 figure a mischaracterization that must have been a typo.  That satisfied Councilor Schalger, but the grass issue sparked a debate over whether to renew the clipping collection contract or just encourage homeowners to leave cut grass on the lawn for mulch.  Mayor Jackson suggested looking at how municipalities elsewhere deal with vegetative waste.

In the regular meeting that followed, which only attracted four residents, the tree contract resolution was passed, as were resolutions renewing a shared service agreement with Glen Ridge for water and sewer management and a change order for the construction of a water pump station.  One ordinance, which would eliminate parking on the west side of Upper Mountain Avenue within 48 feet of the intersection with Mount Hebron Road, was tabled at Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon’s request pending concerns from local residents and his own opposition to it.  Every other measure was passed unanimously.  When resident Sandy Sorkin questioned the use of a consent agenda that allows resolutions to be debated individually in conference but not in chambers for the TV cameras for the sake of transparency, Mayor Jackson said that a republican form of government requires that elected officials tend to issues small enough to be voted on in bulk and not of great concern to the general public, based on trust from the voters to handle mundane aspects of governing.

“Our citizens aren’t really interested being involved in the day-to-day workings of our government,” Mayor Jackson said.  “They want us to be efficient, they want us to watch their taxes, and they want us to lower our debt, and that’s what we’re working hard to do.”  Township Clerk Linda Wanat added that the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey advocates consent agendas for routine subjects.

Regarding the issues of South Park Street, the street itself and the corner bar, Wanat said that a TV commercial production company filming there donated flowers for the empty planters, and Township Attorney Ira Karasick reported that Park Sports Bar licensee Jeff Melnikoff has pleaded “no contest” to the charges against him, and that the October 11 hearing will now determine his penalty.

11 replies on “Montclair Council Meeting: Lots (and Lots) of Talk About Trees”

  1. Councilor Schlager has brought up the issue of large fees to dispose of the Christmas trees before, and I also addressed it council meetings. Until this meeting we were always told by the manager that we had Christmas trees to dispose of. Now it turns out to be an accounting issue or a typo.

  2. The town clerk was very clear that her organization recommends “routine issues” be placed on a consent agenda. My concern is that when we discuss spending money, negotiating contracts, and other projects with lasting consequences, the proceedings should take place in televised open meetings not 2nd floor conference meetings, because in my opinion they are not routine.

  3. The article does not mention that I asked to have the documents being reviewed by the council in non-televised conference sessions be posted on the web site, or made linkable from the agenda. The manager was resistant and only wanted to post completed documents. I suggested, and I hope that I am correct, that residents want to see work in progress so that they may participate, comment and contribute in a timely manner.

    I think I am done complaining now.

  4. Let’s focus on trees and nevermind the burglaries in the area. We want the town to be properly pruned for the thieves.

  5. There’s some fascinating stuff here. The issue of government transparency is perhaps the largest. The claim that a republican government precludes transparency, and that “Our citizens aren’t really interested being involved in the day-to-day workings of our government,” doesn’t seem to have any logical basis. There is a difference between assigning the work to someone and ignoring the quality of that work. Yes, we want our representatives to represent. But we should retain the right to review what is done on our behalf.

    I’m also fascinated by the liability issue regarding tree roots. The idea that the town places trees which can cause damage to sidewalks for which homeowners would be responsible is fascinatingly problematic. How is this different from any of the “unfunded mandates” about which local officials complain?


  6. I agree, Andrew. I understand the need to get “business” done efficiently, but the citizens should have the opportunity to review the “business” in some transparent way. Because the business is almost always about how our tax dollars are allocated. Even if they don’t want to televise the meetings ( not sure what the possible problem could be?) they should at least make the minutes available to the public.

  7. NYC figured this out years ago. They have an approved list of trees for sidewalk planting – typically ones with deep roots and that are also highly disease resistant.

    Gingkos are very popular as a result, as are many oaks.

  8. I have fought for over eight years to have more and more information made public. The public has a right to know and a right to be kept informed.

    In my ideal virtually every document in the Township would be accessible via our website. Furthermore, the State of New Jersey is moving towards this model.

    Knowledgeable citizens are not a liability.

    I offer the following,

    Information is the oxygen of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. But information is not just a necessity for people – it is an essential part of good government. Bad government needs secrecy to survive. It allows inefficiency, wastefulness and corruption to thrive. As Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist has observed, there has not been a substantial famine in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. Information allows people to scrutinize the actions of a government and is the basis for proper, informed debate of those actions.

    Most governments, however, prefer to conduct their business in secret. In Swahili, one of the words for government means “fierce secret”. Even democratic governments would rather conduct the bulk of their business away from the eyes of the public. And governments can always find reasons for maintaining secrecy – the interests of national security, public order and the wider public interest are a few examples. Too often governments treat official information as their property, rather than something which they hold and maintain on behalf of the people.

  9. I’m enthralled to hear that this council’s top priority is planting trees when we have daily break-ins, car-jackings and a perpetually rising tide of property taxes.

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